For many in the Western U.S., last year’s fire season was egregious. It was a year of toxic smoke, hazardous air quality and, for some, prepping “go bags” in case of evacuation. Not to mention menacing midday red and orange skies caused by wildfire smoke particles. However, as bad as last year’s fire seasons was, scientists believe this year might be worse.
That isn’t meant to downplay the events of last year. The 2020 fire season burned 10.3 million acres in the West—costing roughly $150 billion and claiming 47 lives. In California, five of the six largest fires in state history came last year. Topping that list is the massive August Complex fire. Started by lightning, the fire burned more than 1 million acres, an area larger than Rhode Island. Recently, the National Park Service found a giant sequoia in Sequoia National Park that’s still smoldering from the 2020 Castle Fire. The difference between 2020 and 2021 is that now there’s more fuel.
Due to the effects of global warming, parts of the U.S. are experiencing historically low levels of rain. The National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) report that Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah had their driest period between April and March in 126 years. For California, it was the third driest April through March in recorded state history, while it was Colorado’s fourth driest. Some scientists believe that area is in a megadrought, a condition that might last up to 20 years. The drought contributes to low soil moisture and dry vegetation—optimal conditions for wildfire. Add in a bark beetle infestation that’s killing millions of drought-weakened trees and it’s like the West is sitting on an enormous pile of dry kindling.
“None of us are naive about the challenges that this state faces, for that matter the entire Western United States,” California’s Governor Gavin Newsom says of the coming year.
In fact, fire season has already begun in Newsom’s state. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) reports 2,504 fires burning more than 15,000 acres already this year. As the weather gets drier and warmer, the Fire Weather Research Laboratory at San Jose State University may have best summed up the situation in an April 5 Twitter post assessing wildfire hazards.
“Fire season 2021 is looking grim.”