With much of the western United States experiencing drought conditions not seen in 125 years, scientists and wildfire managers are concerned that the region is entering the fire season in worse shape than last year, when 15,800 square miles burned in the U.S., mainly in the West.
With the western U.S. in the midst of a 20-year mega-drought, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that rainfall in the Rocky Mountains and farther west was the second-lowest on record in April. And UCLA climate and fire scientist Park Williams calculates that the soil in the western half of the U.S. is the driest it has been since 1895, the Associated Press reports.
The outlook is particularly bad in California and the Southwest. In March, less than one-third of California was suffering extreme or exceptional drought. Now 73 percent is, according to the National Drought Monitor. The AP reported that a year ago, when a record-breaking fire season burned 4 percent of the state, only 3 percent of California was in a state of extreme drought.
A year ago, none of Arizona, Nevada, or Utah was in extreme or exceptional drought, but now more than 90 percent of Utah, 86 percent of Arizona, and 75 percent of Nevada face severe drought conditions, according to the Drought Monitor. Only 4 percent of New Mexico faced extreme drought conditions at this time last year, but 77 percent does today.
These conditions — which scientists link to climate change — are causing increased tree mortality death, from junipers in the Southwest to drought-tolerant blue oaks in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“It means that the dice are loaded toward a lot of forest fire this year,” said Williams. “This summer we’re going into fire season with drier fuels than we were at this time last year.”