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Fires continue to burn in a dry, hot West

Summer in the American West is waxing infernal. 

Scorching record-breaking temperatures are parching a landscape already dry from a depleted precipitation count in the past two years and wildfires are growing in intensity and breadth coming well before the peak of the fire season occurs.

There are 71 large fires burning in nine different states throughout the American West, engulfing approximately 993,000 acres in flames. More than 17,000 wildland firefighters are deployed throughout the contiguous United States and more than 34,000 wildfires have sparked so far in 2021.

"I think it’s hard for us to realize that we’re literally living through conditions that we haven’t experienced before,” said Phil Higuera, a professor of ecology with the University of Montana, on Wednesday.

Case in point, June witnessed the highest recorded average temperature for the United States in the 127-year history of record-keeping, according to Ahira Sanchez Lugo, a climatologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

“The intense heat we saw is blamed for about 100 deaths and many more hospitalizations,” Sanchez Lugo said Thursday morning. 

While the high-pressure dome was responsible, a new study indicates such an unprecedented heatwave was brought about in part by a changing climate. 

“Based on observations and modeling, the occurrence of a heatwave with maximum daily temperatures as observed in the area 45–52 ºN, 119–123 ºW, was virtually impossible without human-caused climate change,” said the study published by Worldwide Weather Attribution. 

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In one telling part of the study, researchers noted that the town of Lytton in Canada posted the highest recorded temperature ever in Canada at 121 degrees Fahrenheit. The town in British Columbia was almost entirely destroyed by a wildfire just days later.

The wildfires in Canada, the United States and even parts of Siberia, reflect not only an extreme increase in heat, but also dry conditions in the vegetation caused by a prolonged period of drought. 

“About 95% of the American West is experiencing some form of drought,” said Dan Collins, a meteorologist with NOAA on Thursday. “And about 63% of the west is experiencing either extreme or exceptional drought, the two worst categories.”

The dry, hot weather combines with dry vegetation to create a perfect storm for large wildfires. 

On Thursday, the Bootleg Fire in Southern Oregon grew to 227,000 acres with fire officials warning the point at which they will quell the fire is still far out. 

"This fire is going to continue to grow — the extremely dry vegetation and weather are not in our favor," Joe Hessel, incident commander for ODF Team 1 Incident Management Team, said in an update on Thursday.

The fire, which is about 20 miles northeast of Klamath Falls, is only about 5% contained. 

Wildfires are not only caused by climate change, but they can also impact plans to offset the damage caused by climate change. One tactic employed by corporations that emit large amounts of carbon through their transportation or manufacturing divisions, is to buy and conserve parts of a forest that act as a carbon sink. 

But the Bootleg Fire shows the limits of this activity as a large offset project outside of Klamath Falls meant to offset carbon production in California burned as part of the Bootleg Fire, raising questions about whether forest preservation can adequately offset carbon emissions in a landscape where wildfire is so prevalent. 

Climate change manifests itself in the frequency and severity of wildfire, according to NASA, mostly because the changing climate increases drought frequency and severity in the American West.

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“Fire seasons are also starting earlier and ending later each year, while snowpacks are shrinking, leading to earlier spring snowmelt and longer, more intense dry seasons,” NASA said recently. 

Another recent study by the U.S. Forest Service confirms that the recent uptick in high-severity fires is real and likely due to the changing climate, noting that high-severity fires where 95% of the trees in a given area are destroyed have increased by 800% from 1985 through 2017. 

All of this culminates in what has proved to be a difficult fire season so far for much of the American West. 

The National Interagency Fire Center upgraded their wildfire preparedness level to 5 on Wednesday, the earliest such a move has been made in more than 10 years. 

“Now more than ever, we need your help to prevent wildfires. When you work and play in our precious public forests, parks and rangelands, it is critical for you to be fire safe,” the center said on Thursday. 

Unfortunately, there is no immediate alleviation of the conditions. 

“We will continue to see above-average temperatures across the American West through October,” Collins said Thursday. 

The outlook for any rain looks even less promising. 

“Below normal precipitation is more likely to be below normal than above normal for the Pacific Northwest into the Northern Plains,” Collins said. California isn’t expected to see precipitation until at least October. 

The news for Pacific Northwest is bleak because it is the region most likely to plunge into protracted drought, Collins said. The drought afflicting California, the four corners region, Nevada and parts of Utah is likely to intensify and persist. 

“We don’t predict how severe the drought can get, but in many areas,  it is already quite severe,” Collins said. And where the drought leads in the American West, large wildland fires are likely to follow.

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Andrew Avitt/USDA Forest Service

The Telegraph Fire, which burned through 180,757 acres in the Tonto National Forest.