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Western Wildfires Have Destroyed More Than Last Year, And It's Not Even Peak Season

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This weekend, smoke blankets the U.S. from Oregon to South Carolina as dozens of wildfires burn in the West. President Biden spoke with Western state governors yesterday about trying to prevent these disasters as firefighting resources stretch thin. Lauren Sommer is on NPR's climate team and joins us. Lauren, thanks so much for being with us.

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Good morning.

SIMON: We talk about fires in the West now almost routinely. Last year was record-breaking. Is this looking to be the same kind of season?

SOMMER: Yeah. It's been a very busy fire season already because many of the fires have been so fast-moving. You know, in southern Oregon, the biggest wildfire in the country, the Bootleg Fire, has burned more than 400,000 acres. In California, the Dixie Fire is burning not far from where the Camp Fire burned in 2018, which destroyed thousands of homes. So residents are on alert yet again.

Compared to last year at this time, wildfires have burned three times more acreage already in the state. And the worst of fire season hasn't hit yet, which is typically August, September, October.

SIMON: What do the governors told the president they need from the federal government to try and contend with the fires?

SOMMER: Yeah, firefighting resources are tight, including aircraft. So governors highlighted that. But managing forests also came up. A lot of Western forests are denser than they once were. That's because, in the past century, the goal was to suppress fires. So that left forests with a lot of fuel to burn. President Biden told the governors that billions of dollars could be on the way to deal with that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I'm hopeful that we're going to get a lot of the infrastructure plan passed and a recovery act that has a lot of money in here to help you all manage these forests.

SOMMER: Biden also said that stopping these extreme fires also depends on tackling climate change and that the bipartisan infrastructure plan that lawmakers are working on right now is also key because it has things like incentives for electric cars. But the climate spending in that plan is nowhere near as ambitious as Biden originally proposed.

SIMON: Lauren, let's be more explicit about the connection between climate change and what we're seeing in the West.

SOMMER: Yeah, I mean, the extremes this year are alarming, even for scientists who study this. Last month was the hottest June recorded in the U.S. since recordkeeping began. The vast majority of the West, you know, 95%, is facing drought and dry conditions. These hot and dry conditions - they pull the moisture out of plants and soils. And that sets the stage for extreme fire behavior. And that gets much worse when you add climate change, according to Columbia University climate scientist Radley Horton.

RADLEY HORTON: You're effectively going to see more evaporation of whatever moisture there is into the atmosphere much earlier. So suddenly, the risk of things really drying out before the rains come again the next fall isn't just a little higher. It's a lot higher than it would have been.

SIMON: So noting that, Lauren, what can people in fire-prone places do to try and stay safe?

SOMMER: Most wildfires are started by people accidentally. It's things like leftover campfires or sparks from yard equipment. So officials are, of course, asking people to be aware. But it's also really important that homeowners and communities prepare for evacuation and reduce the flammable materials and vegetation around them. You know, that's this thing called defensible space. The work has to happen every year. It doesn't guarantee anything, but it can really improve the chances that homes survive.

SIMON: NPR climate correspondent Lauren Sommer. Lauren, thanks so much.

SOMMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.