But the extreme way the Western U.S. often experiences fires today — infernos, blazes that can in 24 hours, and flames surging through neighborhoods — has repeatedly destructive or dire consequences. This modern Western fire regime isn’t simple. It’s an evolving nexus of longer fire seasons, warming climes, grossly overcrowded forests, drought, and a variety of different factors unfolding in different places (like regions with extremely ).
Now, after a historic 2020 wildfire season out West, already exceptionally parched conditions may have set the stage for another potent fire year in 2021.
Pretty much the entire Southwest is mired in serious levels of drought, including large swathes of fire-weary California in severe or extreme drought. The Golden State only received half of its average precipitation this winter. Vegetation is profoundly dry and fire-prone. Small, though ominous, early spring fires have recently started in the usually wet Santa Cruz Mountains, and that’s after rare winter fires burned in Northern California this year.
A vigorous 2021 wildfire season isn’t guaranteed. But if expectations of a dry, warmer-than-average summer pan out, the ingredients for large, uncontrolled wildfires will be present. Then, all that’s needed are sparks.
“Should this materialize and include the usual mix of ignitions and fire weather, we’re looking at another active fire season,” said John Abatzoglou, a fire scientist at the University of California, Merced.
By July, the National Interagency Fire Center (which helps coordinate federal fire agencies) predicts an “above normal” significant wildfire potential across much of California and large regions of the Pacific Northwest.
Following an exceptionally dry winter (and a record hot autumn & v. dry 2020), vegetation flammability across northern California is at/near record levels for the date (early April) & is approaching levels more typical of mid-summer (late July) levels in some areas. #CAwx #CAfire pic.twitter.com/sUxhDTkZWn
— Daniel Swain (@Weather_West) April 5, 2021
We need to work on reconciling our science (more #goodfire!) with our own responses to fire (a “bad” fire season). There is no bad fire season, only bad outcomes: deaths, homes lost, ecosystem services lost, evacuations, etc. There WILL be fire; how we see it is up to us. 🧵1/4 https://t.co/OFF6DSHceU
— Dr. Crystal A. Kolden 🔥 (@pyrogeog) April 7, 2021
Dominant factors in wildfires are dry and fire-prone trees, shrubs, and grasses, collectively called “fuels.” Over the last four or five decades, Western fuels have often grown drier in the summer and fall, because as the Western atmosphere warms more moisture evaporates from plants and soil. That makes fire easier to ignite, spread, and surge across parched landscapes. Out West, fire researchers have found human-caused climate change, which has driven drier fuels, between 1984 and 2015, in terms of land burned. Separately, fire scientists concluded that wildfire in California has , largely caused by drier fuels.
“It takes just a little bit of warming to lead to a lot more burning,” Jennifer Balch, an associate professor of geography at the University of Colorado Boulder who researches fire ecology, told Mashable in 2020.
Yet, crucially, today there are also bounties of more fuel to burn. The Western U.S. has a historic forest mismanagement problem. As Mashable previously explained:
Over a century ago, an early chief of the U.S. Forest Service, William B. Greeley, said the major Western wildfires in 1910 were vivid proof that By 1935, the U.S. Forest Service requiring a fire to be promptly snuffed out the morning after its discovery. The campaign of intense fire suppression in the U.S. ignored that regular surface blazes naturally thin forest understories, so future flames can’t grow tall and ignite the crowns of trees. These naturally recurring fires, then, often thwarted future infernos. “In the past, these would be ground fires,” said Valerie Trouet, a paleoclimatologist who researches forest ecosystems at the University of Arizona. “They prevented fires from becoming destructive.”
So, during the fire seasons of today, there are boosted odds for unnaturally, unusually big wildfires — particularly when it’s already dry (like 2021).
“This year has the potential for a significant intersection between dry fuels and highly accumulated fuels,” said Rod Linn, a senior scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and an expert in wildfire modeling.
In 2021, this potential looks strong.
“We’re starting out extremely dry and it’s going to get drier from here,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA and the . Swain pointed to the numerous recent fires in the Santa Cruz Mountains. “It should be sopping wet,” said Swain. “[The fires] are suggesting it’s extremely, anomalously dry.
“A lot of places will be dry enough to sustain large fires,” Swain added, but noted those areas will still need ignitions and fire weather, too.
“A lot of places will be dry enough to sustain large fires.”
Human activities, usually unintentional, create most of the sparks (some 84 percent) that set this dry vegetation ablaze. And in heavily populated places, particularly California, sparks are unavoidable. “When you have 40 million people going about their lives, there are inevitably going to be some sparks out there,” said Swain. (There are major efforts to reduce human ignitions during bouts of extreme fire weather, like Public Safety Power Shutoffs which are essentially planned blackouts, but those extreme measures certainly come with some serious side-effects or drawbacks.)
Update, #SpringsFire: Mult helicopters & sm aircraft on scene. Air tankers in route. Fire at 50+ acres, east of Paradise Springs & S of Big Pines Highway. Continues to move east in thick brush & gusty winds. Please stay clear of the area for safety. pic.twitter.com/k1zV9kC2I3
— Angeles National Forest (@Angeles_NF) April 6, 2021
Further confounding matters, the rainy season is growing shorter in the Golden State, which means more opportunity for fires to spread over the dry land, particularly in the fall. “It’s not just the severity [of fire conditions], it’s the length of time in which the land is fire-prone,” said Los Alamos’ Linn.
The 2020 wildfire season lingered into deep autumn, noted UC Merced’s Abatzoglou. Now in early spring 2021, small fires have already started on the dried-out land, hinting at an early start to the real wildfire season, which usually picks up steam in June or July. There’s only been a short fire reprieve.
“Literally burning the candle at both ends seems like an appropriate idiom in this context,” said Abatzoglou.