A decades-long climate change fueled drought in the western United States, it dries up reservoirs and contributes to a first season of forest fires, scientists say.
The flames have burned more than a million acres (more than 404,000 hectares) across the country so far this year. More than 28,000 fires have been burned in 2021, the highest number of fires at this time of year since 2011.
As people turn to air conditioners to survive heat waves, California and other states warn people to save energy to avoid power outages.
According to the US drought monitor, states throughout the west are experiencing extreme and exceptional drought conditions. Conditions have been going on for two decades, which led scientists to call it “megadrought.”
“The southwestern United States is in a period of prolonged drought, or megadrought, of those we haven’t seen on the observation record in recent millennia,” said John Abatzoglou, an associate professor at the University of California which investigates climate and weather.
“To the west of this year, there is an astronomical fraction of land experiencing a severe drought,” Abatzoglou said. Last winter and spring, light rainfall and warm temperatures meant a low level of snow in the mountains, which caused a rapid drying of the earth’s surface, he said.
Fires threatening Arizona ranches
Arizona, which has the spring fire season, has the largest number of fires and the largest burned area in any state so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Seven fires have burned 270,000 acres (109,265 hectares) across the state. Hot and dry conditions have led the Bureau of Land Management to issue fire restrictions.
Firefighters are working to contain the largest forest fire, the Telegraph Fire, in the Tonto National Forest and the mountains east of Phoenix, where it has burned about 167,000 hectares (67,178 hectares). It is now contained at 72%, but continues to threaten nearby communities.
Armando Rodriguez, a professional bullfighter from the city of Winkelman, Arizona, told Al Jazeera he saw smoke on the peaks. Sheriffs have alerted their community and others nearby who are in “ready mode.”
“Everyone is more or less packing and getting ready for the green light if they get to the point where they have to leave,” Rodriguez said by phone Thursday.
If an evacuation is ordered, he plans to call his neighbors to help him gather 500 cattle, load them into trailers, and drive them to safety.
His family has had livestock in the area since the 1960s. “We’re no strangers to it,” he said of the wildfires.
In April, flames were burned in the nearby Dudleyville community, incinerating at least 12 homes and forcing 200 people to flee, according to the Associated Press news agency.
“We’ve dealt with fires, floods, so it’s nothing new to us, but it looks like this year has happened more often,” Rodriguez said.
Blame climate change
It’s unclear whether climate change is directly to blame for lower rainfall in the west this year, but it is certainly to blame for larger factors accelerating the drought, Abatzoglou said.
Global warming causes more rainfall to fall instead of rain instead of snow, which alters the water cycle (the movement of ocean water into the atmosphere back and forth). , he said. Our warming climate also contributes to more drying and increased evaporation.
“Warming basically acts as a long-term tax on the western water budget,” he explained.
Scientists expect another dangerous fire season in California.
The lack of rainfall and the snow pack means plants across the state are dry, crunchy and ready to burn, said Craig Clements, director of the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San Jose State University. That means the state will likely experience a previous wildfire season, with increasingly dangerous fires in the summer and fall, he said.
Clements said a combination of factors is causing more intense wildfires in California: mismanagement has left forests full of too many trees and shrubs. Forest fires are part of a natural cycle that allows life to flourish, but he explained: “We have not allowed fire in our ecosystems for a hundred years.”
Now, climate change is drying up that extra fuel, so there are a lot of lintels ready to ignite and burn.
In Arizona, Rodriguez waits for the rain and prays for his community to be safe. “Call on all the firefighters and first responders who are helping right now, may God be with them and I hope no one gets hurt,” he said.
“As for the fire, this is a beast that breathes and will burn what it will burn,” he added.