By Laurel Morales, Fronteras Desk

Several large wildfires continue to burn in Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. Severe drought led to an aggressive start to this year’s fire season.

It’s Chuck Maxwell’s job to predict how intense this year’s fire season might be. He’s a meteorologist working for the Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque that tracks all kinds of fire information for federal government and state agencies. He looks at several factors including the abundance of dry grass, the amount of snowpack and how severe the drought is.

"Drought really makes the changes in weather much more of a hair trigger kind of situation," Maxwell said.

In other words, an early snowmelt, a very dry landscape, and one lightning strike can set off a massive fire.

La Niña and El Niño drive the big weather patterns. Right now, much of the southwest is praying for a shift toward El Niño. That would mean rain in the next few weeks, but it's hard to predict.

"Having one half of the region getting 2-3 inches of rain and the other half baking at 105 degree temperatures," Maxwell said. "That’s the variability we’re seeing. And to forecast exactly where that sets up and when is very difficult, if not impossible."

Maxwell is confident there will be more lightning. But this year, he’s also anticipating fewer windstorms.

Wind was a big factor last year when the Wallow Fire burned a half-million acres of Arizona and New Mexico. It cost more than $100 million to contain the blaze with firefighters, bulldozers and helicopters.

Wally Covington runs the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University. Covington calls fires that grow to be more than 100,000 acres "mega fires." And he says it may not be this year, but we are bound to see more of them.

He says the Wallow Fire was an example of what happens when global climate change meets forests choked with trees.

"These factors then conspire to set up a very explosive situation, so it’s really a crisis," Covington said.

Small meandering fires are a natural, healthy part of the southwest forest ecosystem. But starting in the late 1800s, fire was seen as the enemy and suppressed. Forests have grown dense since then, and the bounty of fuel has made fires become massive and destructive.

Covington - along with government agencies, environmentalists and the wood products industry - is working to bring Arizona forests back to their natural state. They want to prevent more mega fires from happening.

"Instead of doing 5,000 or 10,000 acre treatment plans, do hundreds of thousands of acres," Covington said. "After all, these mega fires are occurring at hundreds of thousands of acres. That’s their scale, so the remedy has to be at that scale too."

California is tackling the Sierra National Forest at that scale. And in New Mexico there’s a major thinning project underway in the Jemez Mountains.

"The key is we’ve got to get on top of it. We don’t have decades," Convington said. "We’ve got maybe 20 years to get on top of this problem before we’re in a whole new ballgame and a ballgame that’s not going to be fun to play."

He predicts that without these kinds of large scale restoration efforts, we’re looking at a near term future with much of the southwest’s landscape and homes turned to torched toothpicks, destroyed watersheds and lost biodiversity.

Fronteras Desk is a multimedia collaboration among seven public radio stations in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas, including Arizona Public Media. Its reports air on NPR 89.1 and can be seen at azpm.org.