As extreme drought dries out and kills plant life, this natural waste acts as vegetative fuel, or tinder, for wildfires. The buildup of this fuel, when ignited, can lead to hotter, larger fires that spread faster and burn longer. Carefully planned controlled burns executed by fire professionals are essential to maintaining a healthy ecosystem by clearing vegetative fuel, unhealthy flora, and overgrowth. The U.S. Forest Service has acknowledged the agency’s fire mitigation efforts have not matched the worsening conditions on the ground and, as a result, is committed to treating 50 million acres of government-owned, tribal, and private lands against wildfires. These intentional burns are not without risk, however. The largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history, which took place in May 2022, resulted from a controlled burn that escaped its confines.
Another factor that makes dry landscapes so dangerous and prone to wildfires is humans. People ignite about 85% of all wildfires in the U.S., often in regions called the wildland-urban interface where human development meets wild, often drought-ridden land. Highly desirable real estate regions in the West and Southwest, including the Sierra Nevada foothills, San Francisco Bay, San Diego, and San Antonio, have some of the largest swaths of land covered in this type of low-moisture vegetative fuel. In recent years, they have also experienced significant population increases, creating a volatile mixture of tinder and spark.