Wildfires have burned more acres in 2020 than the two previous years combined. And, thanks to climate change, it’s only poised to get worse.
It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint when the 2020 wildfire season began.
The fires started popping up in early spring—small ones, at first. They quickly started growing bigger and bigger, swallowing hundreds and even thousands of acres over the course of a few days.
Previously, the fires would subside when the Monsoon hit in the late summer. If that didn’t happen, they’d at least die down once the temperatures cooled.
But that didn’t happen this year and may never happen again, according to some state forest management officials.
“We’re seeing fire activity every month of every year now,” Tiffany Davila, spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, said.
Arizona wildfires are burning more acres than ever before due to bone-dry conditions, record-breaking heat, and a lack of precipitation.
Wildfires have burned through 955,364 acres so far this year—nearly double the 520,000 acres burned in 2018 and 2019 combined.
And, thanks to climate change, it’s only poised to get worse.
Historic Heat, Dry Conditions
Historically, the monsoon season and subsequent winter would offer relief for a fire-scorched Arizona.
In more recent years, the drought conditions that have consistently plagued the state have now left it without any respite.
Currently, most of the state is considered to be in extreme or exceptional drought conditions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict conditions won’t improve before the end of February.
Combine that with record-high temperatures that persisted well into the fall. The National Weather Service in Phoenix recorded the most days with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees on Oct. 14.
This unfortunate combination left much of the state like a tinderbox just waiting for a spark.
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That’s likely not going to change anytime soon, according to Andrew Sanchez Meador, executive director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.
“Most models predict we’ll have more extreme events—extreme drought, high heat, and sporadic monsoons—going forward,” Sanchez Meador said.
Due to climate change, temperatures are expected to only get hotter and precipitation even more sporadic.
To some extent, Arizona is conditioned for these types of conditions. Numerous native plants are drought tolerant. Sanchez Meador specifically pointed to the Ponderosa Pine, which fills the forests of northern Arizona. Even the mighty Ponderosa can only take so much, though.
“If it experiences back to back drought, it may be predisposed where a lightning fire or low-severity fire may push it over the edge and kill it,” he explained.
The New Normal?
There’s no underestimating the 2020 fire season. Thousands of acres burned and numerous fires sparked in areas frighteningly close to developed housing areas that backed up to portions of wildland overrun by an overgrowth of fine fuels. The Bush Fire quickly burned through more than 193,000 acres in the Tonto National Forest for weeks before ultimately claiming its place as the fifth-largest in state history. Luckily, no injuries or deaths were reported excluding a pilot killed when his helicopter crashed while delivering supplies to a fire.
It could have been worse. Sanchez Meador credited forest officials statewide for implementing early restrictions and closures, which mitigated some of the risk.
Davila said that human-caused fires were actually the biggest issue. About 2,350 fires were recorded statewide this year and at least 1,919 were human-caused.
She theorized that many Arizonans ventured outside due to the statewide closures implemented in the spring and early summer in an attempt to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Still, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, she said.
Arizona may have gotten off lucky this year, but that might not be the case next wildfire season. The NOAA forecasted a La Niña weather pattern this winter, meaning the Southwest will again see warmer, drier conditions.
“We could have an active fire season again—and early—because we may not get the precipitation we need to try and rejuvenate grasses across the landscape,” Davila said. “If we don’t get that, we could see an early start to our activity in 2021.”
And, if this is the new normal, Sanchez Meador said more needs to be proactively done to mitigate future impacts, including prioritizing funds toward forest treatments and taking steps to reduce the effects of climate change.
“Is this the new normal? I don’t know. It’s just something we have to recognize that we have to live with now,” he said. “We have to increase the pace and scale of what we’re doing dramatically.”