LIANE HANSEN, host:
Extreme drought is also having serious effects on other parts of the country. Southern California, like parts of the Southeast, is facing its driest weather on record. And the wildfire season is starting early there. This past week, there was a bad fire in Griffith Park in Los Angeles and another on Catalina Island off the coast.
And as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, thanks in part to climate change, it seems that more parched weather and more fires are on the way.
ELIZABETH SHOGREN: I caught up with Marc Rounsaville when he was on his way to Florida to help put out the fires there. He's the deputy director of Fire Management for the U.S. Forest Service. He says if you look at the country's ancient weather history, it's not surprising that wildfires are becoming more common and more intense.
Mr. MARC ROUNSAVILLE (Deputy Director of Fire Management, U.S. Forest Service): The last 100 years or so have been abnormally wet as compared to the last 2000 years or so. So what that tells me is that whether its climate change or whether it's just normal oscillations between wet times and dry times, we'll probably going to see drier times and more drought.
SHOGREN: He says there's the close connection between drought and wildfire. Dry trees and shrubs burn more easily. Drought also makes trees more vulnerable to disease. For instance, a bug called the pine bark beetle has killed thousands of trees in San Bernardino National Forest in the mountains east of Los Angeles.
Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes says the beetles lay eggs under the bark and their larvae do the real damage.
Mr. MATT MATHES (Spokesman, U.S. Forest Service): They basically eat their way around the inside of the tree just under the bark to get nutrition, that effectively girdles the tree internally, cuts off its circulatory system, and kills the tree.
SHOGREN: Mathes says if it weren't for the drought, the trees would be able to protect themselves.
Mr. MATHES: A healthy tree in a normal rain year, would have enough sap inside of it to literally pitch the bugs out as they initially bore into the tree to lay the eggs.
SHOGREN: Many of the trees the beetles have killed are about 100 feet tall.
Mr. MATHES: Once the fire gets to the top of the 100-foot tall tree, it explodes off the top, throws ambers up in the air, and the winds carry those ambers a long distance.
SHOGREN: Government officials say they can't say that the current droughts are caused by global climate change. But epidemics of tree-killing insects, drought and wildfires are some of the symptoms of global warming. And scientists say, these symptoms will become much more common in coming years.
Jay Lawrimore has been tracking these droughts for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He's working on a study to see if climate change is responsible for making recent droughts worse.
Mr. JAY LAWRIMORE (Climate Monitoring, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): And some of the early results do point to the fact that the drought severity in the U.S. and the expanse of drought has actually worsened because of the warmer temperatures, particularly the rapid warming that has occurred over the last 30 years.
SHOGREN: Whether or not climate change is to blame, Lawrimore says last year, more acres are burned by fires than in any other year on record. And Marc Rounsaville from the Forest Service says this year doesn't look better.
Mr. ROUNSAVILLE: It's not shaped enough to be good, and we've already had quite a bit of activity in the south and in the east. And they got very little moisture over the winter in southern California. That's a real concern.
SHOGREN: And Rounsaville says that's not a rosy picture.
Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.