As parts of the Western US emerge from one of the driest winter seasons on record, the expectation of yet another summer of wildfires will be familiar to many.
Scientists, in fact, are already issuing warnings of an increased risk of wildfires in places such as California for 2021, and other parts of the Western US, as the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported.
The region, where wildfires are increasingly common, is ripe for wildfires following a winter with extremely dry conditions – and reportedly the third worst ever seen.
And it could for a single reason – what is being described by scientists as the second worst drought for 1,200 years.
The Western US, a region at the front of the world’s fight against a warming climate, is on the verge of a “mega drought”, according to a report by CBS, following analysis of the US Drought Monitor and warnings from scientists.
The period of so-called “mega drought”, of which the consequences are only starting to be seen, is thought to have begun in 2000, with peaks in periods of severe drought – and wildfires.
As shown in figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the period was responsible for the two worst droughts to occur, in 2003 and 2013.
Figures for 2020-2021 are more alarming, with the amount of area being in a state of "exceptional drought" at 20 per cent – wider than at any point for 20 years.
Craig Clements, a professor at California’s only wildfire research centre, told the Chronicle that "the lack of rain this season has severely impacted” the moisture of the ground – or its ability to catch alight.
Roughly 60 per cent of Western states are currently under severe, extreme or exceptional drought, according to The US Drought Monitor. The region's reservoirs are also at half of their operating capacity.
It follows winter temperatures ranging from 4 to 15 degrees above average for Western states, and a lack of snowfall — immediately after the worst wildfire event for California in 2020, and another summer of below average rainfall.
Scientists argue that it could end with permanent drought for swathes of the Western US, which could soon become unable to recover from recurring dry winters and summers.
Reasons for the “mega drought” are twofold, a warming climate caused by human activity, and in the short term, a La Niña event in which cooler waters in the Pacific are failing to provide moisture.
“It's hard to say if it's going to be worse, but it could be very similar," Mr Clements added of the current conditions. "As long as we don't have a lightning event, we should be in better shape, but our fuels are not."