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The Southwest is on fire. Iconic deserts are at risk. Biden has issued a disaster declaration

The Southwest is on fire. Iconic deserts are at risk. Biden has issued a disaster declaration

Two fire crew members use axes to chop at burning roots on a charred desert landscape.

New Mexico and Arizona are both facing dangerously early fire seasons. It has left many areas in ashes and is having so devastating effects. President Joe Biden issued a declaration of disasterNew Mexico Over 600 firesBy May 1, a fire had broken out in both states, and hundreds of homes had been destroyed by large wildfires near Ruidoso, Las Vegas, New Mexico and Flagstaff, Arizona.

We asked wildfire scientists Molly Hunter at the University of Arizona to explain what’s fueling the extreme fire conditions and why risky seasons like this are becoming more common.

Why is this year’s wildfire season in the Southwest so early and intense?

Historically, fire season in the Southwest didn’t ramp up until late May or June, because fuels that carry fires – primarily woody debris, leaf litter and dead grasses – didn’t fully dry out until then.

The Southwest is experiencing more Fires can start earlierIn the year. The earlier the fire season is Partly due to the warming of the climate. As temperatures rise, snow melts faster and more water evaporates into atmosphere. Grasses and other fuels also dry out earlier in the season.

Unfortunately, the timing coincides with the time the region experiences the most. Strong windsRapid fire growth can be a result. Some of the fires we’re seeing this year, like the Tunnel FireThese wind events are causing severe winds to blow through Flagstaff and New Mexico. They’re pretty typical winds for spring, but fuels are now really dry and ready to burn.

Two fire crew members use axes to chop at burning roots on a charred desert landscape.
In April 2022, fire crews dig at the roots of a fire that erupted near Flagstaff, Arizona.
Tom Story/Northern Arizona Type 3 Incident Management Team via AP

This year, we have plenty of fuel to burn. In 2021, the Southwest had an estimated population of 1.2 million people. Monsoon season exceptionalThis left green hillsides and lots more vegetation. Now the grasses are forbsThe monsoon has dried out the vegetation that was established during the monsoon, leaving plenty of biomass that can be used to light a fire. In the Southwest, the most significant fire years are those when there is a dry and a wet period. La Niña conditions we’re experiencing now.

What role does climate-change play?

The Southwest is home to Climate ChangeThis has led to warmer and drier conditions. One immediate effect is the increase in fire season.

Fires can now be seen starting in March or April. And if the Southwest doesn’t get a good summer monsoon – the region’s typical period of heavy rainstorms – fire season won’t really stop until we get significant rainfall or snowfall in fall and winter. This means more stress for firefighting resources as well as more stress for communities dealing with fire, smoke, evacuations, and other emergency situations.

As the fire season extends, states are also experiencing more fires that were started by human activity, such as fireworks, sparks coming from vehicles or equipment, or power lines. More people are moving.Out of areas that are fire-prone, there are more chances for human-caused ignitions.

Satellite images shows fires burning near Las Vegas, New Mexico, and Los Alamos.
By May 4, nearly a quarter-million acres had burned in New Mexico, almost double the state’s 2021 total. Satellite images and the map below show fires near Los Alamos (NM) and Las Vegas (N.M).

Map showing several large fires around Santa Fe, New Mexico, including in the town of Las Vegas, New Mexico

National Interagency Fire Center

What effect is the changing fire regime having on the Southwest’s ecosystems?

When fires burn in areas that didn’t see fire historically, they can transform ecosystems.

People generally don’t think of fire as being a natural part of desert ecosystems, but Grasses are now fueling huge fires in the desert, like Arizona’s Telegraph FireIn 2021. These fires are also spreading to other ecosystems and further. The Telegraph Fire began in a desert area, and then burned through chaparral to reach the mountains with pine and conifer forests.

Part of the problem? Invasive grasses like red brome or buffelgrassThey spread quickly and burn easily. There is a lot of grass. These desert systems are now home to many plants.They are more likely to catch on fire.

Desert communities and ecosystems are threatened by invasive buffelgrass.

Some plant species can survive in the desert if there is a fire. But the saguaro – the iconic cactuses that are so popular in tourist visions of the Southwest – are Not well-suited to fire.They can often be killed by fire, and are very common in the wild. Paloverde trees are Not well adaptedTo survive fires.

The grasses, both invasive and native, bring back vegetation quickly. So in some areas we’re seeing a transition from desert ecosystem to a Grassland ecosystemThis is a favorable environment for the spread and growth of fire.

The Cave Creek FireThis is an example of the transition that took place near Phoenix in 2005. It burned over 240,000 acres, and if you drive around that area now, you don’t see lot of saguaros. It doesn’t look like desert. It looks more like an area of annual grassland.

This is an iconic landscape and its loss can have a negative impact on tourism. It also impacts wildlife. There are many. Saguaro is essential for many speciesFor nesting and feeding Bats depend on flowersNectar.

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What can you do to reduce the fire risk in the future

In some ways, people will have the realization that fire is inevitable.

Fires are rapidly spreading beyond our ability to control them. When winds are strong and the fuels are really dry, there’s only so much firefighters can do to prevent some of these big fires from spreading.

A man throws a large log , just cut down, as he and other clear a fire line.

As a fire threatens Las Vegas (N.M.), people clear trees around homes.
AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio

Conducting more Prescribed firesClearing out any fuel is an important step to reduce the chance of really destructive blazes.

In the past, firefighting was more expensive than managing the fuels using tactics like prescribed fire and thinning. But the Infrastructure billThe 2021 fuel management funding agreement included a large influx of money. There’s also a push to move some seasonal fire crew jobs to full-time, yearlong positions to conduct thinning and prescribed burns.

Homeowners can also Be better equipped to deal with fires. That means maintaining yards and homes by removing debris so they’re less likely to burn. Preparedness to evacuate is also a must.

This article was last updated May 5, with Biden issuing a disaster declaration.

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