In a twist that no one had seen coming, the story of the 2023 U.S. fire season has, thus far, centered on New York.
June 7 was “by far the worst day for wildfire smoke exposure in American history” after a freak weather pattern funneled deadly particulates down from Canada — which is having its most destructive wildfire season ever — and into the populous Northeast Corridor.
Then this Friday, some 3,630 miles away from their better-known eponym, the New York Mountains of southeastern California also went up in flames.
As of Tuesday, the York fire had grown to 96,000 acres with 23% containment, making it the largest U.S. wildfire of the year so far. It is hardly a typical fire, however: Burning through the deserty Mojave National Preserve, the York is feeding off of abundant grasses that sprouted after the winter’s record rains as well as “nitrogen-laden smog wafting in from the Los Angeles area,” the Los Angeles Times reports. But considered alongside the 55 or so other large fires burning across nine Western states right now, the York begins to feel like the harbinger of the 2023 U.S. fire season, which typically begins in July but accelerates from August through October.
To date, the U.S. wildfire season has been relatively mild; only 1.1 million acres have burned in 2023 compared to 5.7 million acres at this same time in 2022, the National Interagency Fire Center reports. (The 2022 season itself is remembered for being “unexpectedly quiet”). There was the Newell Road fire in Washington, which burned 60,551 acres and was recently contained, as well as the Pass Fire in New Mexico in May, which burned over 50,000 acres. But wildfires could soon ramp up: The wet winter and mild early summer that held blazes at bay in the American West also fueled new grasses and vegetation, which have since dried into perfect tinder.
(Though it is tricky to attribute individual wildfires to climate change, evidence suggests that the atmospheric rivers that fueled plant growth this winter produced more rain because of global warming, and a separate report found that this summer’s blistering heat would have been “virtually impossible” without the burning of fossil fuels).
Indeed, “Things are shaping up to be incredibly busy this August,” according to The Hotshot Wakeup, a newsletter by and for wildland firefighters, which points to new fires that have developed in Alaska, the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, and California. In Washington State, for example, the Eagle Bluff fire, which started on Saturday, has prompted evacuations and burned 15,000 acres in addition to another 3,500 acres across the border in Canada. Other large fires are also burning in Montana — where “bone dry conditions” and “powerful winds” have “kept ground and air firefighting resources busy in recent days,” per Montana Public Radio — as well as in Alaska’s eastern interior.
But it is the York that has authorities on edge. Though forecasts have predicted a low chance of fires in the moister, higher-elevation forests of the Sierra Nevadas this year, the vegetation turning to firestarter in California’s hot lowlands means that places like the Central Valley, coastal southern California, the mountain foothills, and the deserts are all at risk in the coming weeks, The New York Times reports. And while the New York Mountains are remote and absent of much threat to property or human life (beyond the smoke billowing toward Las Vegas), they are covered in old-growth Joshua trees and other rare plants, as well as home to endangered desert tortoises. According to ecologist Laura Cunningham, who spoke with the Los Angeles Times, it will take more than a human lifetime for the landscape to recover from this fire.
Further up the coast, the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center is also warning of the danger of dead vegetation, noting that the Pacific Northwest is experiencing “drier-than-normal” conditions that make it extra susceptible to late summer fires.
If the U.S. has had a reprieve up until now, though, its fire crews haven’t. Since May 8, the U.S. has sent 2,235 firefighters, smokejumpers, rappellers, and fire management personnel to help combat the record-breaking Canadian blazes, including the still-active Donnie Creek fire in British Columbia, the province’s single-biggest wildfire ever. “Resources are already drawing thin,” explains the Hotshot Wakeup, “and the United States is basically running fire suppression for two countries now.” If fire season gets bad in the U.S. in the coming months, tired crews will undoubtedly be fighting our blazes.
Even the other New York might not be spared if fire season takes off. Smoke from Western wildfires has blown as far east as the Midwest, Great Lakes, and Northeastern metropolises before. The York might be a harbinger of the season to come, but for a sun-baked America, the devastation it heralds is tragically old hat.
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