The Caribbean Region is prone to extreme weather events, such as strong hurricanes, earthquakes, and destructive volcanic eruptions. Other dangerous weather phenomena that may occur in the area are wildfires, especially during periods of drought and when the atmosphere is extremely dry.
To help keep residents and visitors to the USVI safe and informed about fires, the Source spoke with Steven Ippoliti, a Predictive Service Meteorologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Ippoliti’s work predicts when and where severe weather events like wildfires might occur.
“I am a Predictive Service Meteorologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service,” explained Ippoliti. “I am staffed at the Southern Area Coordination Center in Atlanta (SACC). Our function is to detect [weather conditions including fire weather] areas in the Southern US, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands as far out as three months. Typically, the 3-month outlook is issued on the first of every month. We produce a ‘Fire Weather Briefing’ Monday-Friday, with it becoming seven days a week during periods of elevated activity. We also coordinate with most government entities involved with wildfires, including state governments and even the military.”
What is Fire Weather?
Ippoliti discusses what is meant by “fire weather” and the factors that influence the potential for a blaze to occur and grow.
“Fire weather is the [type of] weather that affects wildfires,” said Ippoliti. “Some of the most important weather criteria are dry [air] (lack of rain), wind, temperature, and [low] relative humidity. Once a fire grows large enough, it may begin to drive its own weather in the vicinity of the fire. This can include wind, rain/thunderstorms, and even fire tornadoes, if the fire becomes large enough to cause this to happen,” explained Ippoliti.
“Fire season typically coincides with the dry season. [This occurs] sometime in January into April, although it will likely vary year to year,” he added.
Wildfire Occurrences in the Caribbean
Droughts occur in the Caribbean, which can lead to a higher threat of a potential blaze. In recent years, St. Croix and Puerto Rico, for instance, have been affected by fires. As recently as March of 2023, fire weather conditions along southern Puerto Rico were elevated, resulting in a “red flag warning,” indicating a critical risk for fire weather. Additionally, as was recently reported by the Source, the USVI is on track to experience another drought.
“The Caribbean region is susceptible to fires, but due to the size of the islands, they are not typically as large as the fires in portions of the US,” Ippoliti noted.
“Also, being surrounded by water can help keep the humidity higher, making it more difficult for fires to burn. However, during a period of dry air and lack of rain, [fires] are possible. The southern area of Puerto Rico is an area that can experience multiple wildfires a year, with possibly some larger fires,” Ippoliti explained.
“While there are some grass and shrub/trees that may burn, one of the largest concerns for wildfires is the downed dead vegetation from various sources, such as strong thunderstorm downbursts from tropical systems that move through,” said Ippoliti. “The downed vegetation may not be available to burn right away. But if ‘prescribed burning’ [which is an intentionally set blaze for fire management purposes] does not remove the dead vegetation, it can be fuel for any fires in the dry season,” he added.
Types of Wildfires
There are several varieties of infernos, and Ippoliti explains the differences:
- Ground Fires
“Ground fires are typically in low-lying fuels, [commonly] even underground in dead roots. These fires tend not to have much in the way of a flame but smolder underground until conditions are right for them to come up to the surface. These fires can go days, even weeks, without being detected, since there are no flames or even smoke to indicate they are burning.”
- Surface Fires
“Surface fires are burning in fuels on the surface, such as palmettos, dry or dead palm fronds, or other fuels that can spread on the ground. They can burn hot and spread rapidly, and if conditions are right, even begin to scorch the forest canopy.” (Dead vegetation can become fuel for a fire particularly in the Caribbean.)
- Crown Fires
“A ‘crown fire’ typically burns along the tops of the trees. This is especially true where there is very little on the ground for the fire to burn and be able to spread. The wind may spread the fire even if there is a space in the canopy.”
How Fires Begin and How to Prevent Them
Interestingly, natural weather events such as lightning strikes are not the most common reasons for a fire. It’s human behavior that usually sparks a firestorm.
“While lightning can cause a fire, most of the thunderstorms are accompanied by a good deal of rain,” Ippoliti said. “So, human-caused fires are by far the most likely source of ignition. Please remember that this does not mean a fire is started on purpose. Humans bring all different ignition sources, from unattended campfires, motorized vehicles with hot motors coming in contact with dry grass, to fireworks being set off in areas susceptible to fire,” he added.
“The first thing people can do is to be very aware of fire danger in their area before they decide to have open flames or use motorized vehicles in areas of dry grass, for instance. Second – have safety equipment, such as fire extinguishers, on hand if anyone is planning on having a fire. Again, most fires are human-caused in the Caribbean. So, situational awareness is key, even for people with experience,” cautioned Ippoliti.
“Something else people can do is to keep their property free of downed branches and trees. Remove dead shrubs. Keeping a safe open area around structures is important as well,” he advised.
Wildfires and Climate Change
The Caribbean region is vulnerable to specific challenges created by climate change. One of the impacts of climate change is the possibility of warmer and drier weather, resulting in an increased potential for wildfires.
“The current research shows that climate change, with warming, can mean stronger hurricanes, leading to more downed vegetation, thus more fuel for fires. It also shows that dry season may last longer, which could allow for a longer fire season as the trend toward a warmer climate continues,” warned Ippoliti.
“It also may bring more severe storms to the area, leading to more rainfall in the wet season,” Ippoliti continued. “While this may seem like a good thing, it will lead to vegetation growth, which could potentially cause more fuel loading if that vegetation dies or cures. So, you could say that climate change with warmer average temperatures could allow for more large fires for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.”
Comparing Hurricanes and Wildfires
Hurricanes are one of the more “typical” severe weather events in the USVI. Ippoliti explains some of the differences between these phenomena and the damage that each can create.
“It is difficult to compare a wildfire and a hurricane,” noted Ippoliti. “Hurricanes come with so many various hazards that it can be difficult to mitigate potential damage. However, there is usually some notice of a tropical storm before it hits, allowing at least some time to prepare. Wildfires, on the other hand, can occur without notice and move swiftly if conditions are right. Many times, if a fire is spreading quickly, it may overtake someone on foot. Also, the weather may change quickly, causing extreme fire behavior with little to no warning,” he explained.
The Expectation of Fires This Year
There are indications that the Caribbean may experience an “El Niño” later this year. According to Climate.gov, during an El Niño, there may be “fewer hurricanes due to stronger vertical wind shear and trade winds, and greater atmospheric stability.”
While cyclone activity may (possibly) decrease, fire weather potential may increase. According to a March 2023 update from the “Predictive Services National Interagency Fire Center,” fire weather may increase during an El Niño event this year.
“Recent dryness is also noteworthy across Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, where abnormal dryness and some moderate drought have developed in recent weeks. This is typical of their dry season during La Niña years, which climatologically runs through April,” stated Ippoliti. “Given the expectation for El Niño later this year, any lingering dryness through March and April will be key to increasing risks later in 2023. The Caribbean’s wet season, which runs May-November, is often much drier than normal during the El Niño base state.”
How to Stay Informed About Fire Risk
Weather alerts, including information about wildfire risks, will continually be updated on the Source Weather Page. USVI residents and visitors can also sign up for emergency alerts from the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service. Additionally, Ippoliti offers the following advice about how to stay up to date on information regarding fire weather.
“To remain informed, people can stay alert to weather forecasts and news channels. NOAA weather radio may also contain some information. They can also visit our page at SACC (Southern Area Coordination Center). The site also links to other Coordination Centers across the country,” Ippoliti said.