The flames have burned over a million acres (over 404,000 hectares) across the country so far this year. More than 28,000 fires 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 are warning people to conserve energy to avoid straining power grids.
According to the US Drought Monitor, the western states are experiencing extreme and exceptional drought conditions. Conditions have persisted for two decades, which has led scientists to call it a “mega-drought”.
“The southwestern United States is in a period of prolonged drought, or mega-drought, like we haven’t seen in observations of the last few millennia,” said John Abatzoglou, associate professor at the University of California who studies climate and weather.
“In the west this year, there is an astronomical fraction of land that is experiencing severe drought,” Abatzoglou said. Last winter and spring, lackluster precipitation and warm temperatures resulted in low snowfall in the mountains, causing the earth’s surface to dry up rapidly, he said.
Arizona ranches threaten wildfires
Arizona, which experiences its spring wildfire season, has the highest number of fires and the largest area burned of any state so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Seven fires burned 270,000 acres (109,265 hectares) across the state. The hot and dry conditions led the Bureau of Land Management to issue restrictions on the fires.
Firefighters are working to contain the world’s largest wildfire, the Telegraph Fire, in the Tonto National Forest and the mountains east of Phoenix, where it burned nearly 166,000 acres (67,178 hectares). It is now 72 percent contained but continues to threaten neighboring communities.
Armando Rodriguez, a professional bull rider from the town of Winkelman, Ariz., Told Al Jazeera he can see the smoke over the hills. Sheriffs have warned her community and others nearby to be in “ready mode.”
“Everyone is more or less packing their bags and getting ready for the green light if they get to the point where they need to leave,” Rodriguez said on the phone Thursday.
If an evacuation is ordered, he plans to call in his neighbors to help him round up 500 cattle, load them onto trailers and drive them to safety.
His family has ranched in the area since the 1960s. “We’re no strangers to this,” he said of the wildfires.
In April, flames burned the neighboring community of Dudleyville, burning at least 12 homes and forcing 200 people to flee, according to the Associated Press news agency.
“We’ve been dealing with fires, floods, so it’s nothing new to us, but it looks like this year it’s happening more frequently,” Rodriguez said.
Blame climate change
It’s not clear whether climate change is directly to blame for the decline in rainfall in the west this year, but it is certainly to blame for larger factors accelerating the drought, Abatzoglou said.
Global warming causes more precipitation to fall in the form of rain instead of snow, which changes the water cycle (the movement of water from the ocean to the atmosphere to the land and back again), a- he declared. Our warming climate also contributes to increased drying and increased evaporation.
“The warming essentially acts as a long-term tax on the water balance of the west,” he explained.
Scientists expect another dangerous wildfire season in California.
The lack of precipitation and snow accumulation means the state’s plants are dry, crisp and ready to burn, explained Craig Clements, director of the Wildfire Interdisciplinary Research Center at San Jose State University. This means the state will likely experience an earlier wildfire season, with fires becoming increasingly dangerous in the summer and fall, he said.
Clements said a combination of factors is leading to more intense wildfires in California: Poor management has left forests filled with too many trees and brush. Forest fires are part of a natural cycle that allows life to flourish, but he explained: “We have not allowed fires in our ecosystems for a hundred years”.
Now climate change is drying up that extra fuel, so there is abundant tinder ready to ignite and burn.
In Arizona, Rodriguez hopes it rains and prays that his community will be safe. “Shout out to all the firefighters and first responders who are helping right now, God be with them, and I hope no one gets hurt,” he said.
“Regarding fire, it is a breathing beast, and it will burn what it will burn,” he added.