Environment: Why the West Is Burning

A five-year drought has parched soils, lowered reservoirs and weakened forests. And if the past is any guide, the dry spell could go on for decades

In California the wildfire season generally ramps up slowly, and the largest fires usually don't arrive until fall. But this year is different, says Riverside County fire captain Rick Vogt, surveying the aftermath of a blaze that swept through the rural community of Sage, 80 miles from San Diego, with unseasonal intensity late last month, blackening more than 3,500 acres. Fire fighters this time were able to contain the flames, but next time they may not be so lucky. A five-year drought has left this always arid region even dryer than usual, and when the hot Santa Ana winds start to...

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