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The Southwest's spring wildfire season has started earlier than normal


People near Flagstaff, Ariz., are nervously watching a nearby wildfire. High winds in the forecast there could cause it to grow rapidly. Large fires also threaten homes in New Mexico, and a prairie wildfire has already destroyed homes and farmland in Nebraska. This earlier-than-normal start to the spring wildfire season is being blamed on an extended drought made worse by climate change. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, scientists say much of the West is now experiencing the driest conditions in 1,200 years.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The fire season, if you can even call it that anymore, typically starts around now in the Southwest before the summer monsoons arrive, if they do. But the fires are igniting weeks earlier and lasting longer because the winter snow is melting sooner. That means the fuels, the brush, is already extraordinarily dry.

PARK WILLIAMS: From a fire perspective, the dice are now loaded for another big fire year in 2022.

SIEGLER: This is Park Williams, a UCLA professor who's studying the fallout of this 23-year megadrought in the Western U.S. Scientists now know that megadroughts like this one were common here historically and that much of the 20th century was actually relatively wet. That coincided with an explosion of development and a long and still-standing U.S. government policy to stamp out wildfires.

WILLIAMS: We did a great job for a hundred years stopping fires. But we, despite our best efforts, are losing control of the fire regime in the West. There are too many trees, and it's too warm. Things are drying out, and we're getting a lot of fire.

SIEGLER: Williams predicts we'll have another long, expensive, destructive and smoky summer, and there's no indication things will improve in the coming years, either. But fire experts caution about calling this current crisis, where we're seeing upwards of 10 million acres burn every year, unprecedented. Lincoln Bramwell is the chief historian for the U.S. Forest Service.

LINCOLN BRAMWELL: There's more people in the path of these fires, and that can make them more destructive.

SIEGLER: Bramwell bristles a little at the now-popular term in the news media of a megafire to describe the destructive fires like the deadly 2018 Camp Fire or last December's Marshall Fire near Boulder, Colo. It suggests they're unprecedented when they're really not. Before we got so good at fire suppression, he says, upwards of 30 million acres tended to burn in the West every year.

BRAMWELL: Culturally, we have a hard time wrapping our heads around that because we've kind of expected that this doesn't happen. And if it does happen, there's a lot of resources that will come out and try to save the day.

SIEGLER: The game-changer, though, is human-caused climate change that's making these fires potentially much worse. And in some parts of the West, you're seeing a big shift in how fire managers are trying to manage the public's expectations because of it.

BRIAN OLIVER: Everybody's very much on edge.

SIEGLER: Brian Oliver is the wildland fire chief for Boulder, Colo., which has seen scores of close calls with wildfires already this spring. Climate change has meant erratic weather swings here. Last fall and into the winter, he says, it was drier in the Rocky Mountain foothills than in Death Valley. He says firefighters should not be expected to stop these fires.

OLIVER: I equate that to trying to fight a hurricane, right? We don't mobilize a force to go turn a hurricane around, right? We get everybody out of the way, and then we try to come back in and clean up after we can.

SIEGLER: And fire scientists say the times we do successfully stop a fire before it gets out of hand, we just leave more fuels on the ground for the next ignition.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.