Heat wave raises fears Western U.S. states could face severe fire season


The punishing heat wave that baked the western United States this week has intensified fears that the region is heading into another severe wildfire season, pressuring emergency officials and residents still recovering from last years historic blazes once again to prepare for the worst.

Record high temperatures and a worsening drought have parched vast tracts of brush, timber and grasses, leaving an abundance of potential fuels for the flames to consume. The vegetation has dried out faster than usual in some places after an early snow melt and months with little precipitation. The triple-digit heat this week has only compounded the problem.

"We're going into fire season with fuels that are already much drier than we'd expect at this time of year," said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension. "Everything is kind of primed. If we get those ignitions, everything will be ready to burn easily."

Preventive work has been underway for months. Fire crews spent the winter and spring clearing flammable materials, engaging in public outreach campaigns and conducting controlled burnings of vegetation to manage the hazards. Officials have called on residents to fireproof their homes and businesses, and more communities are participating in the national Firewise program, which aims to reduce wildfire risks.

But the tinderbox conditions mean that even small blazes could quickly spiral out of control.

In Arizona, where firefighters were battling a mix of small and large fires this week, one blaze was so erratic that a retardant dropped by heavy air tanker had almost no effect on the flames, according to Tiffany Davila, a spokeswoman from the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.

"The fire was just blowing right through the retardant," she said. "These conditions are just explosive."

Already, the state has experienced more high-intensity blazes, known as Type 1 fires, than usual, Davila said, with two occurring in May before Arizona's fire season typically peaks. Relief usually comes in July during the state's monsoon season, but last year's monsoon was light. Without more rain, Davila said, "anything that didn't burn last year is burning this year."

In California, where wildfires charred a record 4.3 million acres last year, state fire officials are pleading with residents to take greater personal responsibility for preventing blazes. The vast majority of wildfires - upward of 90% by some estimates - are caused by human activity, so reaching residents is a priority.

"We're going to do our best to extinguish all fires, but we need the public to do their part," said Jon Heggie, fire battalion chief at Cal Fire. "If someone starts an accidental fire, it really has a devastating effect on the whole community."

California officials are desperate to stave off a repeat of last year, when dry lightning strikes ignited thousands of fires around the state over a two-day period during a mid-August heat wave. Fire crews were strained to the limit. Electricity providers initiated rolling blackouts to prevent further blazes from fallen wires.

"My top concern after what we saw last year is that we're hit with a weather system that produces the same amount of lightning," Heggie said. "It's going to stretch the resources of any organization, and we're no exception."

In Marin County, Calif., dry conditions combined with an overgrowth of vegetation have forced fire workers to speed up their prevention work. The county has mobilized a large corps of firefighters to protect its residents and limit the spread of wildfires in the region, hoping to draw on some of the tactics it has used in past years to mitigate the risks, fire Battalion Chief Graham Groneman said.

"We're looking at all the fuels that are about a month to a month and a half ahead of schedule - so ahead in their dryness," Groneman said. "What we would normally see fires do in late July, early August is what we're seeing fires do here in mid-June."

Los Angeles, too, is grappling with blazing heat that puts the hillsides at higher risk for ignition. Fire Department spokesperson Brian Humphrey said the city is trying to help residents make evacuation plans if fires like last year's close in on the region, but officials are facing some resistance. Displacement is taxing, particularly in historically marginalized communities. This, coupled with misconceptions regarding the actual threat of wildfires in Los Angeles, is worrying officials, he said.

"People have to be prepared to evacuate," Humphrey said. "People are reluctant to do so in the city."

In Southern Nevada, the lack of rain has firefighters on edge as they prepare for what could be high-intensity burns that would be difficult to contain.

"Without having a true winter in Southern Nevada this year, we're seeing record lows in all the live moistures in our vegetation, which results in higher fire risk," said Tyler Hecht, a fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management in Southern Nevada.

One of the main issues is the bone-dry conditions of the region's pinion and juniper pines, he said. "The pinions and junipers are just above the dormant phase as far as the amount of moisture that they have right now. They're just barely staying alive, so that's very concerning for us," Hecht said. "With the extreme heat we had over the past week, it's contributing to a lot of fire growth. It's making these fires resistant to control, making them harder to fight."

High winds in the region Friday and potential thunderstorms or dry lightning also pose risks. "The hotter it gets and the lower the relative humidity, the harder it is to contain these fires," Hecht said.

The concerns in the western states are beginning to register in Congress, where a group of lawmakers this week called on President Joe Biden to unlock resources for states that have been affected by wildfires and extreme drought. In a letter, they noted that some 95% of the West was either abnormally dry or in a drought, the largest geographical spread in two decades. They urged Biden to request disaster funding to respond to the crisis.

"The scale and nature of the problem is quickly outpacing the availability of funding and authorities of federal agencies," the lawmakers said in the letter.

The problem is also having a deepening impact on communities in California, as well as other parts of the country where the threat of wildfires has become a fact of daily life.

"It takes a huge emotional, physical and psychological toll to be always on edge," said Rebecca Miller, a wildfire policy expert at Stanford University. "When weather is in the triple digits and there's high winds and risk of wildfires and risk of having power shut off, all of this exacerbates anxiety and fear around what to do if or likely when a fire does occur."