Heatwave Helps Fuel Wildfires in American West

Wildfire season in the American West typically gets going in the latter part of summer, but this year it is off to an early and explosive start.

As of Wednesday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, nineteen large wildfires – defined as greater than 100 acres of timber or 300 acres of grassland – are burning in eight states.  These include Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

In Santa Barbara, CA, the Sherpa Fire has burned approximately 8,000 acres of land since it began last week. The Reservoir Fire and Fish Fire, both in LA County, have each scorched thousands of acres and forced more than 750 homes to be evacuated. In New Mexico, 24 homes have been destroyed by the Dog Head Fire, which has blackened almost 28 square miles of land near Albuquerque. And, in Arizona, the Cedar Fire has charred nearly 42 square miles of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

These huge fires are being fueled by years of drought and bark beetle infestations that have turned the region’s forests and brush areas into parched tinderboxes, making them susceptible to any type of spark. On top of that, a searing heat wave has now exacerbated the situation.

A massive area of high pressure, known as a heat dome, has been sitting over the region for days producing extremely hot and dry conditions. On Monday, according to the NWS, Las Vegas, NV saw the mercury climb to 115°F, Phoenix, AZ reached 118°F, and Palm Springs, CA hit a sweltering 122°F.

Although wildfires are part of the ecosystem in the western US, the early start, massive size, and widespread scope of the current fires are rather unusual. They also come on the heels of the 2015 wildfire season, which was the worst in US history with more than ten million acres burned.


Smoke billows over LA as wildfires burn in the nearby hills of Angeles National Forest.          Credit: R. Chiu/AP