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The Southwest is on fire – with iconic deserts and towns at risk, Biden issues a disaster declaration

The Southwest is on fire – with iconic deserts and towns at risk, Biden issues 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 destroyed entire neighborhoods and is having such devastating consequences. President Joe Biden issued a declaration of disasterNew Mexico Over 600 firesLarge wildfires had ravaged hundreds of homes in the vicinity of Ruidoso and Las Vegas (New Mexico) and Flagstaff (Arizona) by May 1.

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.

Now, the Southwest is seeing more Fires can start earlierThe year. The earlier the fire season is Partly because of the warming climate. As temperatures rise, the snow melts quicker and more water evaporates in the atmosphere. This causes grasses, and other fuels, to dry out earlier.

Unfortunately, the timing coincides with the time the region experiences the most. Strong windsThis can lead to rapid fire growth. Some of the fires we’re seeing this year, like the Tunnel FireThese intense wind events are driving fires in New Mexico and Flagstaff. 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

We also have a lot to burn this year. In 2021, the Southwest had an estimated population in excess of 2 million. Monsoon season exceptionalThat left green hillsides with lots of vegetation. The grasses are now forbsThe monsoons have dried out many of the biomass that was planted during these times, making it possible to build 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 in our lives?

The Southwest is home to Climate ChangeThis has led to warmer and drier conditions. One immediate result is the longer fire season.

Fires are now starting in March and 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 gets longer, states are seeing more fires started by human activities like fireworks, sparks from equipment or vehicles, and power lines. More people are moving.You should not venture into areas that are highly fire-prone. This will increase the chances of 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 Fire2021 These fires are also spreading further and into other ecosystems. 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 is Invasive grasses like red brome or buffelgrassThese grasses spread quickly and can easily be burned. There is a lot of grass. Now, these desert systems are home to some of the most prolific and productive plants in the world.They are more susceptible to wildfire.

Desert ecosystems and communities are at risk from 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 adapted for fireThey can often be killed by fire, and are very common in the wild. Paloverde trees are Not well adaptedTo survive fires.

The grasses, both natives and invasive, are what brings back the land quickly. So in some areas we’re seeing a transition from desert ecosystem to a Grassland ecosystemThis is very conducive for the spread of fire.

The Cave Creek FireThis is an example of how you can see the transition in 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 annual grassland.

This is a famous landscape and its loss can have a significant impact on tourism. It also affects wildlife. Many Saguaro is a vital resource for many species.For nesting or feeding. The flowers are important to batsNectar.

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

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

Our ability to control fires has become increasingly difficult. 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.

Las Vegas, N.M.: May 2, 2022: People remove trees from around a house to prevent a fire.
AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio

Conducting more Prescribed firesClearing out fuel potential is one way to reduce the likelihood of very destructive blazes.

The cost of fighting fires was much higher than managing fuels with tactics such as prescribed fire and thinned. However, the trend is changing. Infrastructure billA significant influx of funds for fuel management was included in the 2021 budget. 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 more prepared 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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