Extended Droughts Might Make Fires Worse in 2021

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Last year's wildfire season was exceptionally bad -- more than 4.2 million acres burned in California alone in 2020. Experts suspect that this year could also bring severe wildfires, given that 40% of the West is being classified as being in "extreme" to "exceptional" drought. Though it's only April, parts of the West are already at mid-July levels of dryness. This may herald the beginning of a multi-decade "megadrought," which would make conditions even worse.

Why this Matters

The West has had seasons of drought throughout its history, but with climate change and a boom in population growth -- an increase in water demand could make it even drier. Scientists believe that the last 22 years have been the second-driest period for a multi-state region in the West going back 1,200 years. In addition, climate change has pushed the rainy season later into the fall, so fire season starts sooner and lasts longer. These dry seasons can be deadly: between 1980 and 2020, drought cost nearly $250 billion in damages and killed nearly 3,000 people.

Burned Out

This current drought could affect 74 million Americans and is expected to grow increasingly severe. Daniel Swain told Axios: "On the wildfire front: I am very concerned about what might transpire this year, especially from mid-summer into autumn. I fully expect another very severe fire season across the West in 2021."

WW0 Instagram Live: Dr. Alex Hall and Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali discuss California Fires and Climate Change, October 1, 2020.

There's a small chance that this year's wildfire season is less intense since the climate is so arid that plants aren't growing as plentifully as they would normally, leaving less fuel for fires in the heat of summer and fall. But it's looking increasingly dire for the West, given that California has had two winters in a row that were drier than average. Another bad sign -- the Colorado River Basin's snowpack is already melting. The amount of soil moisture in March was at its lowest level across the West in at least 120 years.

To mitigate the effects of this dry season, agriculture producers are anticipating that their water allocations could be cut down to protect ecosystems in rivers and drinking water supplies. As Lake Meade and other reservoirs drop, the expected cuts next year will reduce the Central Arizona Project's water supply by nearly a third, according to AzCentral. Lake Meade is so low that it could trigger the first-ever shortage declaration by the federal government next year, leading to substantial cuts in water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico. Moreover, California has enacted rolling blackouts to prevent electrical equipment from sparking fire.