Drought grips western US as wildfire season begins

Drought grips western US as wildfire season begins

Low water levels are seen next to barges that are anchored at Bidwell Canyon Marina on Lake Oroville on June 1, 2021 in Oroville, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Almost three-quarters of the western United States is facing the most severe drought in the the recorded history of the US Drought Monitor, as hot and arid conditions are expected to exacerbate the threat of forest fires and water shortages this summer.

Parts of California, Nevada and Washington have seen sweltering triple-digit temperatures last week amid drought, according to the National Weather Service, states issuing excessive heat warnings and heat advisories in certain areas.

Conditions this spring are much worse than a year ago. In fact, nearly half of the continental United States is experiencing a period of moderate to exceptional drought, marking the country’s most significant spring drought since 2013, according to scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The US Drought Monitor, a map produced by a team of university and government scientists, began about two decades ago. It is updated every Thursday to show the location and intensity of drought across the country.

In an aerial view, the remains of a house and trees burnt by a recent wildfire are seen near the rugged shores of Lake Oroville on June 1, 2021 in Oroville, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

In California, which experiences frequent drought conditions and massive forest fires, state reservoirs are 50% lower than it should be this time of year, according to an Associated Press report, which could trigger the shutdown of hydropower plants during the worst part of the wildfire season.

The state experienced its worst wildfire season on record last year in terms of total area burned, fueled in part by prolonged heat waves, droughts and lightning worsened by climate change.

In a meeting with the head of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection last week in Sacramento, Gov. Gavin Newsom called for a record $ 2 billion budget for forest fire preparedness and an expansion of its aircraft fleet to fight fires.

California will also have its largest firefighting force in history working on the ground during peak fire season.

Alisha Herring, a communications representative for Cal Fire, told CNBC the department has completed dozens of fuel reduction projects, including controlled burns, to reduce the threat of fires this season.

“As we approach the summer months, the conditions will only dry out further, increasing the fire danger,” she said. “These dry conditions allow a forest fire to start much easier and burn hotter and faster than what we would normally see at this time of year.”

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Farmers in the Northwest are also grappling with increasing drought damage crops and struggles to irrigate fields as water levels drop.

“72% of the western United States is currently experiencing ‘severe’ drought or worse. It is now the most extensive severe drought in recorded history,” wrote climate scientist and activist Eric. Holthaus in a tweet. “We are in a climate emergency.”

Climate change makes drought and other extreme weather events such as hurricanes and forest fires more frequent and intense.

The researchers also say that rising temperatures have pushed the American Southwest towards a mega-drought lasting several decades, leading, among other things, to a decrease in the snowpack, lake and river levels and the availability of groundwater.

“After two years of water in dry conditions, California and Nevada are now 100 percent drought,” according to an update Friday from NOAA’s National Integrated Drought Information System.

“And with conditions of extreme drought, a rapid decrease in the snowpack and low reservoir levels, concern for the wildfire season is increasing,” he said.

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