The drought is exacerbating wildfires and taxing water resources
By Matthew CappucciOct. 19, 2020 at 1:11 p.m. MDTAdd to list
The largest and most intense drought in years is engulfing the West and threatens to grow larger and more severe in the coming months.
The drought has already been a major contributor to record wildfire activity in California and Colorado. Its continuation could also deplete rivers, stifle crops and eventually drain water supplies in some Western states.
Nationwide, drought has expanded to its greatest areal coverage since 2013; 72.5 million people are in areas affected by drought. More than one-third of the West is in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, the two most severe categories, according to the federal government’s U.S. Drought Monitor.
In its winter outlook issued last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cautioned drought conditions are expected to persist or worsen over large parts of the West during the December through February period, and expand farther east into the central United States.
Dry conditions have fed devastating fire season
In recent months, drought has surged to extreme levels along parts of the West Coast, including Northern California, much of Oregon and the Cascades in Washington.
Soils have been sapped of moisture, with intense heat waves drying out vegetation even further. This has led to rampant and sometimes explosive wildfire growth.
Elevated temperatures have further helped to dry out the soil, exacerbating the drought and making fire weather conditions even more hazardous. California, for example, had its warmest August on record, and a severe heat wave in early September led to a deadly spate of wildfires.
In Colorado, wildfires continue to rage along the Front Range, with evacuations west of Fort Collins and northwest of Boulder. The Cameron Peak Fire, which has torched more than 200,000 acres, is now the largest wildfire in Colorado history, and the CalWood Fire became Boulder County’s largest fire on record when it exploded in size over the weekend. That fire has burned at least 26 homes, though the toll is expected to increase.
There is no precedent for wildfires this severe igniting so late in the season in the Centennial State. It’s no coincidence that the entirety of Colorado is experiencing a drought for the first time since 2013. Fifty-nine percent of the state is enduring an extreme drought or worse.