Hot, dry winds will continue to spur flames burning through the drought-stricken landscapes in the south-west and the American plains, complicating efforts to extinguish roughly a dozen destructive wildfires that have already driven thousands from their homes.
Risks are usually higher in the region during this time of year and fire conditions typically ramp up in the months sandwiched between winter and summer rain seasons. But experts say the explosive start is an indication of what’s to come in the warming months. Spiking temperatures threaten to bake more moisture out of the thirsty environments, setting the stage for ignitions to turn into infernos.
“Climate change is taking a situation that would be bad for us normally,” says Gregg Garffin, a climatologist at the University of Arizona, “and turning the dial up.” Once confined to specific times of year, wildfire conditions are stretching across more months, and will likely continue until the region gets additional rain.
More than a million acres have already burned across the country since the start of this year, an amount more than double last year for this date, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). The agency’s accounting also shows that more fires have ignited this year than any other in the last decade and burn totals are more than 71% higher than the ten-year average.
Last year’s exceptionally strong summer monsoon in the south-west – which delivered record rainfall in some areas – led to a lush landscape that has now begun to brown. With temperatures rising, the parched plants have turned to fuel for flames, driven faster by gusty winds. The conditions aren’t expected to abate anytime soon. Roughly 90% of the American west remains mired in drought with many areas desperately missing the winter rains they rely on to refill water-starved systems.
“You have this desiccation going on due to climate change and you combine that with other factors,” Garffin said, noting the La Niña pattern that delivered less winter rains across areas of the west, “and it is really a year-round fire season.” La Niña is a climate system that develops in the Pacific ocean and delivers more dry days across the southern third of the US. Its drought-producing effects are especially pronounced in the south-west.
The conditions have been particularly problematic in New Mexico, where five large fires have already burned more than 157,603 acres. The Southwest Coordination Center, the region’s hub for a national coordination system that organizes information and mobilizes resources between federal and state dispatch centers, has bumped its preparedness level to four – the second highest category – noting the rising strain on local resources.
“That is like the bat signal saying, ‘hey we need help over here,’” says Candice Stevenson a public information officer at the NIFC, noting that the area may need more national resources in the south-west. The National level is currently at 2 and there are more teams available to deploy.
With months left before its fire season typically peaks in June, more acres have already burned in New Mexico than in seven of the last eight years. “We have been busier than we have in the past with fire activity,” says Scott Overpeck, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service based in Albuquerque, comparing the start of the season to other bad drought years in 2011 and 2018. “We have been seeing the writing on the wall, in the sense that we know with the drought conditions that it is going to be a rough season.”
April is also the state’s windiest month which has spurred the spread. With no rain in the forecast, the state is bracing for strong gusts expected through next week. “It is going to depend on when these storm systems come across and increase the winds that are really going to make trouble for us,” Overpeck says.
Despite the harrowing conditions, firefighters made progress on the state’s largest blaze, the The Calf canyon and Hermits peak fire. The fire, which had already consumed more than 63,720 acres on Friday, was 37% contained. A red flag warning remained in effect, with wind gusts of up to 50 mph, poor relative humidity, and rising temperatures threatening to test containment lines into the weekend. Roughly 960 firefighters and other personnel battling the blaze are prioritizing the safety of structures, but hundreds of homes have already been lost and nearly 300 buildings total have been damaged or destroyed, according to New Mexico fire officials.
Conditions are not likely to improve in the coming days or weeks.
“We have a very large area from north-east New Mexico up into Colorado and western Kansas and we have designated it an extremely critical fire weather risk area,” says Bill Bunting, the chief of forecast operations at the Noaa/NWS Storm Prediction Center, noting that the dangerous combination of strong winds, low relative humidity, and dryness fuels “the rapid spread and erratic behavior of any fire that gets started”. Bunting added that this will make it “exceedingly difficult” to fight the fires already burning.
There have already been a number of high-end fire weather danger days this year, according to Bunting and the threats are expected to persist.
The NIFC has predicted an above-normal fire potential lasting through the spring in areas from the high plains through the south-west. The threats will also linger farther west, into central Oregon and northern California this spring, and will only grow there through the summer and autumn. With the snowpack waning, the agency also noted that historic water sources used for suppression might not be available.
“There will be wetting rains in some areas but overall, it does suggest that it is going to be an active fire season,” Bunting says. “It is just a reminder – you can have dangerous fire conditions any time of the year.”