Despite frozen, snow-covered ground, 2012 ended with smoke coming from a dozen smoldering wildfires in America's West, as record dry conditions and an unprecedented number of huge fires in seven states resulted in the third worst fire season in US history.
"Even snow hasn't put the fires out completely... the unburned fuels are slow to extinguish," said Jennifer Jones, public affairs specialist for the US Forest Service in Oregon.
According to Jones, firefighters in the West now consider the wildfire season to be 12 months long, due to extreme heat and dryness during the past decade.
"After the New Year we start watching the Southwest carefully -- states like Arizona and New Mexico," Jones said. In 2012, the 297,000-acre Whitewater-Baldy Fire in New Mexico began in May and burned for seven months.
Forest fires burned 9.2 million acres across the United States in 2012, the third worst season since record taking began in 1960, and closely following 2006 and 2007, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Washington.
Across America, a total of 4,244 homes and structures were engulfed in 2012, well above the 10-year average of 2,598, according to the Fire and Aviation Management division of the US Forest Service in Washington.
The rampant 2012 wildfires also tapped federal resources. The US Department of Agriculture that oversees the US Forestry Service has a $950-million budget for forest fire containment, but in 2012 spent close to $1.4 billion.
And with fears about the fiscal cliff in Washington, lawmakers are reluctant to allocate funding for future fire suppression efforts.
On Friday, the US Senate rejected an amendment to add $653 million to the Forest Service's Wildland Fire Management account to fight fires in 2013.
Although the National Weather Service is predicting a cool winter and more precipitation in 2013, the historic dry conditions are leaving fuels ready for another possible bad year.
In 2012, four states -- Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota -- recorded their driest September in 118 years. Five other states ranked among their tenth driest ever: Washington (second), Oregon and Nebraska (third), and Idaho (sixth), according to NIFC data.
"Dry fuel conditions exist throughout the West, so we'll see what's in store next year," Jones said.