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Warming Climate Amplifies The Risks Of Wildfire Season


This summer could be difficult for much of the U.S. The West is in a megadrought that may last decades. That's raising concerns about another major wildfire season, and the warming climate is amplifying those risks everywhere. To learn more, we're joined by three reporters - NPR's Nathan Rott in Southern California, Luke Runyon of KUNC in Colorado and Annie Ropeik of New Hampshire Public Radio. Welcome to you all.


LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: Hi. Good to be here.


FADEL: So Nate, let's start with you. We're both in California. Four of the state's largest fires in history were last summer. What's it looking like this year?

ROTT: Yeah, it's not looking so good. Things are drier than they were at the same time last year. You know, people are out recreating, camping, four-wheeling. And when you get a lot of people in the woods, fire has a way of following. And it's not just here. Fire forecasts are bad in Oregon, Washington, Colorado - all of which also had huge fire seasons last year. And in the southwest, which is almost entirely in extreme or severe drought, we've already seen more than 100,000 acres burned in Arizona alone this year.

So I want to say one thing though here, too. I want to add, because I think we cannot say it enough, that not all fires are bad. Right? Much of the West's forest - heck, even some of the East's - have evolved with wildfire. They need it. What's bad is when those fires burn through a community, and that's something we've been seeing increasingly often over the last few years.

FADEL: Yeah, certainly here in California.

ROTT: Yeah.

FADEL: What's the state doing to be better prepared and try to keep that from happening this year?

ROTT: So California's being really aggressive. It hired an additional 1,400 firefighters for this year, staging many of them in areas like the Napa Valley that have just been hammered by wildfires in recent years. They're also heavily investing in prescribed fires - you know, small ones set on purpose to keep bigger ones in check. And they're using other mitigation measures, too. But to give you an idea of what they're up against, at a recent press conference, the state's governor, Gavin Newsom, said California has had a thousand more wildfires this year than the same time last.


GAVIN NEWSOM: And last year was a record-breaking year. You're already feeling the temperature shifts. You already saw those red flag warnings, which are earlier than we've seen in many, many years.

ROTT: And so, you know, they're trying. But as we all know at this point, if you get a fire with wind behind it with conditions as dry as they are, there's not a whole lot that firefighters are going to be able to do.

FADEL: So another hot summer.

Luke Runyon, you cover the Colorado River, a crucial water supply for the southwest. What kind of impact from the drought are you seeing there?

RUNYON: Yeah. So if you live in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas or Denver, you're getting the Colorado River's water through your home faucet. And if you eat a salad in winter, there's a really good chance that that lettuce was irrigated with the Colorado River. And the watershed really has been reeling from rising temperatures for the last two decades. And that's something that scientists say is directly attributed to climate change. And in the last year, things have gotten even worse. A few states in the basin - Arizona, Utah and California - had their driest 12 months on record over the last year. The river has the nation's two largest reservoirs on it, Lakes Powell and Mead, which are designed to provide a cushion of water supply during the dry times. But they can't keep up with the demands, and both are projected to hit record lows this year. With Lake Mead, it will, for the first time, dip below a level that triggers an official shortage declaration from the federal government.

FADEL: Oh, that doesn't sound good and sounds like it will probably have far-reaching impacts. What would it mean?

RUNYON: That means that some people are going to be mandated to use less water from the river. First in line for cutbacks are Nevada, Arizona and the country of Mexico. And Arizona is going to end up taking the steepest cuts. Ted Cooke is the general manager of the Central Arizona Project. It's a 330-mile canal that delivers water to cities, farms and tribes in the state. And at a recent press conference, he said the cuts would be painful, particularly for farmers.


TED COOKE: But working together within the state and throughout the basin, we are able to put together a plan that can give us a more definitive view of what exactly is going to happen and when it's going to happen and who it's going to happen to so that we don't have to deal with all of this uncertainty.

RUNYON: Something I've heard more recently is that the Colorado River's drought is locked in for at least a few years because these massive reservoirs take so long to recover. So this is something that the southwest is going to be dealing with for the foreseeable future.

FADEL: So here in the West, we have gotten used to bad drought and fires. But I want to turn now to Annie Ropeik in New Hampshire, where there is also a growing concern. Annie, what are you seeing there?

ROPEIK: Well, we're seeing the same climate change impacts as most places - warmer temperatures, shorter winters. We're getting heavier rainfall, but it's coming more sporadically. And so that seems to be leading to more of these short-term droughts, or sometimes called flash droughts. And New Hampshire has had three of its worst droughts on record in just the past 20 years. But this is a region that still thinks of itself as very water rich. People are not used to dealing with dry spells here. We have a high rate of homes that use private, unregulated wells for drinking water, and those have been running dry in the past several months.

It actually led the state to launch an emergency drought aid program for the first time. They paid for bottled water and new wells for low-income families who lost their water supply. I went to see a woman named Terry Bamford in South Tamworth, which is a rural town just south of the White Mountains. And we talked while her new well was being drilled. And she told me she was without water for weeks before she could get help from the state.

TERRY BAMFORD: I basically can't do anything without water. I mean, I couldn't drink. I couldn't take a shower. I had just started a new job (laughter). So I was racing around everywhere trying to get jugs from everybody and water. My whole house was filled. The bathroom was filled with jugs 'cause you have to flush the toilet. Then if you cook you have to - oh, it was worse than camping (laughter).

ROPEIK: So Terri does now have a new deeper well, but the state is worried we might see another drought this year, so it might expand that aid program. It's also starting to have focus on finding more reliable water connections for towns if this pattern continues. And we're hearing a lot more messaging about water conservation.

FADEL: And what about wildfires? It's not something you really associate with New England. But do these flash droughts make them more likely?

ROPEIK: This is something that Nate and I and another reporter are actually looking at this summer with our larger environment reporting collaborative, the history and risk of major wildfires outside of the Western U.S. You know, pretty much anywhere you look in the country, there is a history of wildfire, and there are forests that are prone to fire. And we've just forgotten about that in a lot of places, including here in the Northeast. These are dry conditions that make fires more likely to spread out of control or to threaten life and property when they do start.

I've been talking to a forest ranger in the eastern White Mountains named Jim Innes, and he's planning what he has described as sort of an unusually proactive prescribed fire in a neighborhood on the very edge of a National Forest, where he also happens to live himself. He says all these dry spells and watching those big fires out West is all making him nervous.

JIM INNES: You know, every time I'm out here and it's a dry, hot, windy day, I'm like, oh, gosh - please not today (laughter). Just - 'cause all it would really take back there honestly is someone to throw a cigarette down when it's really dry. And you know how pine needles are. You know, they just take off.

ROPEIK: And this actually led our state government to take a first-time step last fall of banning smoking and campfires near public woodlands for several weeks during a drought.

RUNYON: Here in Colorado, the federal government went even further than just fire restrictions last year. Last fall, the U.S. Forest Service temporarily closed more than a million acres of public land northwest of Denver as a preemptive measure to keep people from setting off new fires.

FADEL: So this isn't just a really bad year or two years. I mean, this sounds long term. What are the long-term impacts we might see as climate change makes droughts longer and more frequent?

RUNYON: Well, one in the Colorado River basin that's getting more attention lately is hydropower, those dams that hold back the river's huge reservoirs churn out electricity for rural power providers and tribal communities in the southwest. And low water makes it harder to do that. Here's Len Schilling with the Bureau of Reclamation. That's the federal agency that manages dams in the West. He oversees Hoover Dam outside Las Vegas.

LEN SCHILLING: As the lake levels go down, we have less pressure pushing on those turbines. And that's really what impacts how much power we can deliver. So as the lake diminishes, we just can't produce as much power.

RUNYON: One federal agency, the Western Area Power Administration, has already started discussing a possible rate increase because of the lower levels. And in kind of a nightmare scenario, both Lake Powell and Mead have levels where no power can be produced, which, if they were to drop that low, it would have this cascade of effects throughout the region.

ROPEIK: Something else folks might not think about is water contamination during droughts. There was a big federal study recently that found wells can have higher levels of chemicals like arsenic during droughts. You know, there's less water; things get more concentrated. We have a lot of naturally occurring arsenic in northern New England, and it's in the bedrock, which is where wells are drilled. So this is another public health issue with droughts, and officials in New Hampshire are having to push for more well testing.

ROTT: Yeah. And Leila, I mean, I think the bigger takeaway from all of this is that we're kind of already living in a changed world. And that's going to force some tough decisions. You know, here in California, you know, where homes are still being built in forested areas, some people aren't able to get fire insurance. And this is something the state's insurance commissioner, Ricardo Lara, has been talking about a lot.

RICARDO LARA: Some of them are paying more for insurance than for their actual mortgage. And if - what happens if you can't find insurance for your home? You can't sell that home. That home then drops in property value.

ROTT: Which hurts tax bases for communities that are, you know, already strapped trying to make ends meet. You know - and this is not just happening in California, but in built environments all over the world. And it's only getting worse. So while, you know, we hear about all of the acute effects of climate change over the next few months - fires, droughts - I think it's really important to remember these long-term challenges ahead.

FADEL: That's NPR's Nate Rott in Southern California along with Annie Ropeik in New Hampshire and Luke Runyon in Colorado. Thank you all for your reporting.

ROTT: Thank you.

ROPEIK: Thank you.

RUNYON: Thank you.


Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
Annie Ropeik reports on state economy and business issues for all Indiana Public Broadcasting stations, from a home base of WBAA. She has lived and worked on either side of the country, but never in the middle of it. At NPR affiliate KUCB in Alaska's Aleutian Islands, she covered fish, oil and shipping and earned an Alaska Press Club Award for business reporting. She then moved 4,100 miles to report on chickens, chemicals and more for Delaware Public Media. She is originally from the D.C. suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, but her mom is a Hoosier. Annie graduated from Boston University with a degree in classics and philosophy. She performs a mean car concert, boasts a worryingly encyclopedic knowledge of One Direction lyrics and enjoys the rule of threes. She is also a Hufflepuff.