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A regional collaboration of public media stations that serve the Rocky Mountain States of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

'Everything Is Converging': All Signs Point To An Extreme Fire Season

A white plane with red-tipped wings is distant, but in the center of the image. A massive red plume of fire retardant is billowing out below and behind the plane onto a grassy section of a hill that's burning. Part of the hill to the right is already black and smoking, while the left and bottom parts of the picture feature dry, yellow grasses, sage brush and a few small green trees.
Krieg Rassmussen
/
U.S. Forest Service, InciWeb
A single engine airtanker (or SEAT) drops fire retardant over a portion of the Badger Fire in Idaho on Sept. 26, 2020.

Several wildfire projections for this summer aren’t looking good. And the Mountain West is facing a number of water shortages, according to Mojtaba Sadegh, who leads the Hydroclimate Lab at Boise State University.

“We are down on river flows, we are down on dam storage, we are down on soil moisture. It’s hotter. Everything is converging,” he said.

Sadegh wrote about the signs of an intense fire season in The Conversation.

The hotter it is, the drier it gets, Sadegh said. And the drier it gets, the warmer the air will become.

“If you have soil moisture, it will evaporate, it will have a cooling effect. Without that, we’ll have more of a warming effect,” he said.

That means warm air in an already dry area can push the region into drought extremely fast. Sadegh noted that two weeks ago, 60% of the West was in a drought.

“This week, we are (at) 84%,” he said. “So 24% of the Western U.S. went under drought in two weeks.”

Sadegh says the best-case scenario is if people are extremely cautious this year, especially around campfires and fireworks. One 2017 study found that more than 80% of wildfire ignitions are caused by humans.

“We should all be very careful,” he said, “so that we do not turn a bad situation into a disaster.”

Sadegh said we shouldn’t just react to the changes in the wildfire season, though, but work to reduce carbon emissions that drive climate change.

The U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior have already noted the possibly extreme conditions and are calling for preparations for the upcoming season.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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