The following essay is reprinted with permission from The conversationan online publication covering the latest research.

New Mexico and Arizona are facing a dangerously early fire season. It has left neighborhoods in the ashes and has such devastating consequences that President Joe Biden issued a declaration of disaster for New Mexico. Above 600 fires it had erupted in both states in early May and large forest fires burned hundreds of homes near Ruidoso and Las Vegas, New Mexico, and Flagstaff, Arizona.

We asked a forest fire scientist Molly Hunter at the University of Arizona to explain what fuels extreme fires and why risky seasons like this are becoming more common.

Why is this year’s season of forest fires in the southwest so early and intense?

Historically, the fire season in the southwest has not increased until the end of May or June, as the fuels that carry fires – mostly wood waste, leaf litter and dead grass – have not dried up completely by then.

Now the southwest sees more fires start much earlier in the year. The earlier fire season is partly due to global warming. As temperatures rise, snow melts faster, more water evaporates into the atmosphere, and grasses and other fuels dry out earlier in the season.

Unfortunately, the earlier times coincide with the usual experiences in the region strong winds which can lead to rapid fire growth. Some of the fires we see this year, such as Tunnel fire near Flagstaff and the fires in New Mexico are driven by these really intense wind events. These are quite typical winds for spring, but the fuels are already really dry and ready to burn.

This year we also have a lot of fuel to burn. Last summer, in 2021, the Southwest had exclusive monsoon season which left green hills and lots of vegetation. So far the grass and Forbes those found during the monsoon have dried up, leaving a lot of biomass that can carry a fire. Often in the southwest our biggest fire years come when we have a wet period followed by a dry period, such as The conditions of La Niña we are testing now.

What role does climate change play?

to the southwest, climate change means warmer and drier conditions. One immediate effect is the extension of the fire season.

Now we see fires starting in March and April. And if the southwest doesn’t get a good summer monsoon – the region’s typical period of heavy rainstorms – the fire season really won’t stop until we get significant rainfall or snowfall in the fall and winter. This means more stress on firefighting resources and more stress on communities facing fire, smoke and evacuation.

As the fire season lengthens, states also see more fires caused by human activity, such as fireworks, sparks from vehicles or equipment and power lines. More people are moving in areas prone to fire, creating more opportunities for man-made ignition.

What effect does the changing fire regime have on the ecosystems of the Southwest?

When fires burn in areas that have not seen fires historically, they can transform ecosystems.

People don’t usually think of fire as a natural part of desert ecosystems, but the grasses are now kindling really big fires in the desert, like the one in Arizona Telegraph fire in 2021. These fires are also spreading far and wide in various ecosystems. The Telegraph fire started in a desert system, then burned through the chaparral and in the mountains, with a pine and coniferous forest.

It’s part of the problem invasive grasses such as buffalo grass and red bromine which spread quickly and burn easily. It’s a lot of grass now grows in these desert systemswhich makes them more susceptible to forest fires.

When a fire spreads in the desert, some plant species, such as mesquite and other shrubs, can survive. But saguaro – the iconic cacti that are so popular in Southwest tourist visions – are they are not well adapted to fireand they often die when exposed to fire. Paloverde trees are also not well adapted to survive fires.

What comes back quickly are grasses, both local and invasive. So in some areas we are seeing a transition from a desert ecosystem to a pasture ecosystem which is very favorable for the spread of fire.

IN Fire in Creek Cave near Phoenix in 2005 is an example where you can see this transition. It burned over 240,000 acres and if you drive around this area now, you don’t see much saguaro. It doesn’t look like a desert. It looks more like one-year pastures.

This is an iconic landscape, so the loss affects tourism. It also affects wildlife. A lot species rely on saguaro for nesting and feeding. Bats rely on 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.

Now fires are rapidly surpassing our ability to control them. When the winds are strong and the fuels are really dry, firefighters can do so much to prevent the spread of some of these big fires.

Conduct more prescribed fires Clearing up potential fuel is an important way to reduce the likelihood of really big, destructive fires.

Historically, much more money has gone into firefighting than fuel management with tactics such as dilution and prescribed fire, but infrastructure bill what was signed in 2021 involved a huge influx of funding for fuel management. There is also a push to relocate some seasonal jobs to fire brigades full-time, year-round, to carry out thinning and prescribed burns.

Homeowners can too be better prepared to live with fires. This means maintaining yards and homes by removing debris so they are less likely to burn. This also means readiness for evacuation.

This article was originally published on The conversation. Read on original article.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-the-2022-southwest-fire-season-is-so-early-and-intense/

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