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Wildfires Are Roaring In The West — But Not All Of Them Are Bad

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Statue of Liberty shrouded in haze, a red sun - smoke from Western wildfires has spread across the country. Roughly 80 fires are currently burning in the U.S., dozens more in Canada. And conditions across much of the heat-baked West are primed for major wildfire. Let's bring in Nathan Rott of NPR's climate team.

Hey, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So here on the East Coast, several states have had to issue air alerts. There's so much smoke drifting across the country to us. I'll pose the question on behalf of the East Coast to the West Coast - what's going on out there?

ROTT: Well, we call it summer. And I don't mean to be overly flip, but, you know, a lot of what we're seeing this year is kind of what you'd expect to see, you know, during the summer in the West.

KELLY: Although, this season - this wildfire season seems to have gotten underway earlier than we might have typically found it to.

ROTT: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, it was a much earlier fire season in the Mountain West than we typically see. You know, there's been heat wave after heat wave after heat wave. Missoula, Mont., where I am right now, has had more than - has had more 90-degree days to this point in the year than it's had since 1904. You know, you have the megadrought that much of the West is suffering. So none of that is what we would call normal. But they're becoming more regular as we release greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere and the climate warms.

KELLY: You said you're in Missoula. Just tell us, what does it feel like? What does it look like there?

ROTT: Yeah, I mean, it's dry, you know? The forests are dry. Some of the rivers are running at half the flow they normally do at this time of the year because of the drought. Yesterday afternoon, actually, we had thunderstorms come through the area, which I recorded some of their sound. We can play a little of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDERSTORM)

ROTT: And yeah, we got a little bit of rain with that, but not enough to put anything resembling a dent in the drought here. And I know people were just kind of holding their breath, hoping that none of those lightning strikes hit a tree and started a fire. Because with the conditions what they are, we basically know, if we get an ignition, a fire is going to burn. And it just kind of feels like we're a big wind event away from one of those fires really getting up and going, like they're seeing in Oregon right now.

KELLY: You mean the Bootleg Fire in Oregon right now.

ROTT: Yeah. Yeah. So that's the biggest fire in the country right now. It's, you know, showing some pretty extreme fire behavior - more than 300,000 acres. And, you know, when a fire gets to that size, and it got that to size really quickly, they start to create their own weather. They make their own thunderstorms, their own wind patterns. That's what's been happening on the Bootleg Fire, and it's what we've been seeing increasingly often every fire season - fires getting to an intensity and size that not only is, you know, bad for the people living near them, but for the forest that they're actually burning in. You know, a growing body of research is showing that some forests are not growing back the way we'd expect in a world where climate change wasn't also applying pressure to them. One thing I think it is important to remember here, though, that no matter how many headlines they grab, fires like the Bootleg Fire are not the norm. Most fires are small. And frankly, they're even beneficial.

KELLY: Beneficial how? What do you mean?

ROTT: So many of the forests in the U.S. - East, West - they're meant to burn. I was talking to a paleoclimatologist, Valerie Trouet, at the University of Arizona about this earlier today.

VALERIE TROUET: These kind of low intensity fires, as we call them, or good fires - they're the fires that we want to regularly clean out the forest of too much fuel.

ROTT: So they can create breaks in vegetation, slowing the advance of flames. So really, some of these fires are what's supposed to happen, and they're kind of good.

KELLY: NPR's Nathan Rott.

Thank you, Nate.

ROTT: Yeah, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.