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Why the southwest fire season of 2022 is so early and intense

Why the southwest fire season of 2022 is so early and intense

The following essay is reprinted with permission from Conversationan online publication that covers recent research.

New Mexico and Arizona are facing dangerously early fire seasons. This has left the neighborhood in the ashes and has such devastating consequences that President Joe Biden has announced the disaster for New Mexico. Ends 600 fires by early May, two states had erupted, and large forest fires had burned hundreds of homes near Ruidos and Las Vegas, New Mexico, and Flagstaff, Arizona.

We asked the firefighter scientist Molly Hunter at the University of Arizona to explain what causes extreme fire conditions and why risky seasons like this are becoming more common.

Why is this year’s fire season in the southwest so early and intense?

Historically, the fire season in the southwest did not increase until the end of May or June because the fuel that carried the fires – primarily wood debris, foliage and dead grass – had not dried up completely by then.

Now the southwest sees more fires start much earlier per year. An earlier fire season partly due to global warming. As the temperature rises the snow melts faster, more water evaporates into the atmosphere, and grass and other fuels dry out earlier in the season.

Unfortunately, the earlier deadlines coincide with when the region usually feels strong winds which can cause rapid fire growth. Some of the fires we are seeing this year, for example Tunnel fire near Flagstaff and the fires in New Mexico caused by these really intense winds. These are pretty typical winds for spring, but the fuel is now really dry and ready to burn.

This year we also have a lot of fuel. Last summer, in 2021, the Southwest was exceptional monsoon season that left the green slopes of the hills and a lot of vegetation. Currently herbs and weeds which settled during the monsoon, dried up, leaving a lot of biomass that could withstand the fire. Often in the southwest our biggest fire years come when we have a wet period followed by a dry period, e.g. Terms of La Niña we are now experiencing.

What role do climate change play?

In the southwest, climate change meant warmer and drier conditions. One of the immediate effects is the prolongation of the fire season.

Now we see fires starting in March and April. And if there are no good summer monsoons in the southwest – a typical period of heavy rains in the region – the fire season will not really stop until there is significant precipitation or snowfall in autumn and winter. This means a greater burden on firefighting resources and a greater burden on communities facing fire, smoke and evacuation.

As the fire season lengthens, there are more and more fires in the states caused by human activities, such as fireworks, sparks from vehicles or equipment, and power lines. More people are moving goes into fire-prone areas, creating more opportunities for human-induced fires.

What impact does the change in the fire regime have on the ecosystems of the Southwest?

If fires break out in areas that have not seen a fire historically, they can change ecosystems.

People don’t usually consider fire a natural part of desert ecosystems, however the grass is now kindling really big fires in the desert, as in Arizona Telegraph fire in 2021. These fires are also spreading further into various ecosystems. The telegraph fire started in the desert system and then burned through Chaparral and moved to the mountains with pine and coniferous forests.

Part of the problem is invasive herbs such as large grass and red bromine which spread quickly and burn easily. Lots of grass now growing in these desert systemsmaking them more prone to forest fires.

When a fire spreads in the desert, some plant species, such as mesquite and other shrubs, can survive. But saguaras – iconic cacti that are so popular in tourist visions of the Southwest – poorly adapted to fire, and they often perish when exposed to fire. Palaverde trees also poorly adapted to survive fires.

What is coming back soon are herbs, both local and invasive. Thus, in some areas we observe a transition from a desert ecosystem to a meadow ecosystem which is very conducive to the spread of fire.

The Cave Creek Fire near Phoenix in 2005 is an example of where you can see this transition. It has burned more than 240,000 acres, and if you drive through this area now, you won’t see many saguars. It’s not like the desert. It’s more like an annual herb.

This is an iconic landscape, so the loss affects tourism. It also affects wildlife. A lot species belong to the saguaro for nesting and feeding. Bats hope for flowers for nectar.

What can be done to avoid a high risk of fire in the future?

In some ways, people will have to admit that fire is inevitable.

Fires are quickly surpassing our ability to control them. If the wind is strong and the fuel is really dry, firefighters can only do so much to prevent the spread of some of these big fires.

Holding more prescribed fires Cleaning up potential fuel is an important way to reduce the likelihood of really big, devastating fires.

Historically, much more money was spent on firefighting than on fuel management through tactics like thinning and prescribed fire, but infrastructure bill signed in 2021 included a huge influx of funding for fuel management. There is also a push to transfer some seasonal jobs to fire crews to staff positions throughout the year to carry out thinning and prescribed burns.

Homeowners can too be better prepared to live with lights. This means supporting yards and homes by removing debris so they are less likely to burn. It also means preparing for an evacuation.

This article was originally published on Conversation. Read original article.

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