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Severe Drought Sets In Across Southern Rockies, Mountain West

A map of the Western U.S., showing varying levels of drought.
United States Drought Monitor
This map of the United States shows drought conditions for the week of June 23. Yellow areas represent abnormally dry conditions, tan represents moderate drought, orange represents severe drought and red represents extreme drought.

As the country turned its attention toward the pandemic, something else was creeping into the Mountain West: drought conditions.

Some areas in our region, like Nevada, saw less-than-average precipitation this winter. And while other areas received above-average snowfall, recent high temperatures have caused that snow to melt faster than usual.

"Particularly just east of the Rockies, it's been a combination of really three major factors: the above-normal temperatures, high wind events and low humidity levels," said Adam Hartman, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

As of last week, the agency's drought monitor showed drought conditions deepening across the region. That includes about 85% of Nevada and 97% of Utah. Extreme drought has set in across southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.

Hartman said conditions are likely to persist throughout much of the region this year, especially in traditionally dry areas, and that can cause another problem: wildfires.

"You definitely do need to be more cognizant of things like, if you're going camping, you don't want to be leaving an embering fire or something like that," Hartman said. "Power companies, obviously, you've heard stories of downed power lines sparking a fire."

The National Interagency Fire Center's latest wildland fire outlook, dated June 1, predicts above-normal fire conditions in July across much of the West.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Noah Glick is a former content director and host at KUNR Public Radio.
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