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Wildfire weather, fueled by climate change, is increasing across the Mountain West, study finds

This is a wide-angle image of a desert landscape in New Mexico. Wildfire smoke is billowing from a mountainside in the center of the image. The sky is blue.
Courtesy Of InciWeb
Fire activity as seen from along the southeast edge of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, the largest and most destructive in New Mexico’s history, on May 7, 2022.

A new report shows hot, dry and windy days have become more frequent across the Western U.S., raising the risk of extreme wildfires.

When high temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds combine, it’s known as fire weather. Climate Central, a nonprofit research group, compared days with those conditions in 1973 and 2023.

According to the report, some of the biggest increases over that 51-year period were in the Mountain West. New Mexico’s Northern Mountains had 61 more fire weather days, which tied California’s Southeast Desert Basin. Not far behind were New Mexico’s Northeastern Plains (60 more days) and Northwestern Plateau (59 more days).

Other notable surges in fire weather days were in South-Central Nevada (50 more days); Colorado’s Arkansas Basin (45) and Rio Grande Basin (44); Wyoming’s Upper Platte (37); Western Utah (35), and Idaho’s Southwestern Valleys (24).

Climate Central’s Kaitlyn Trudeau said human-caused climate change is fueling the fire weather trends.

“The air is getting warmer, and warmer air can actually hold more water,” Trudeau said. “And so, as it gets warmer, you can think of the atmosphere as kind of getting thirstier, so it starts pulling more moisture out of the landscape and the vegetation and the soils.”

She said in many areas of the West, the biggest jumps in fire weather days have come during the spring, a time of year people typically don’t associate with wildfire.

She noted the report doesn’t consider several factors, such as how forests and vegetation have been altered by decades of industrial logging, fire suppression, and restrictions on Indigenous cultural burns.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.