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Wildfire burning through the Mojave Desert threatens Joshua trees


California is seeing its first major wildfire this year. The York fire is burning through the Mojave Desert Preserve on the border of California and Nevada, burning through a forest of endangered Joshua trees. Caleigh Wells from member station KCRW joins us now. Caleigh, California had a really, really wet winter. So why are we seeing such a huge fire in California's southern desert?

CALEIGH WELLS, BYLINE: I mean, the short answer is climate change, because that causes this really extreme weather. And then this really extreme weather causes extreme fires. And so this year's flavor of extreme weather was we got way more rain than normal, and now we're in a much longer heat wave than normal. And, you know, this is the recipe that we've all heard before. We've got more plants from all this rain. Then we've got this big hot heat wave that dries all those plants out. Then you add in some strong winds. It creates perfect fire conditions. And unfortunately, the Joshua trees are kind of just sitting there in the crosshairs.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, Joshua trees are treasured here in California. What does it mean for them? What does this fire mean for them?

WELLS: Well, it kind of just means pretty bad news. We had the Dome fire three years ago in this area, and it grew to about half the size of this one. But even that result was really devastating. There were 1.3 million Joshua trees that burned. And, you know, they're not like the big pine trees in northern California that can handle a certain amount of fire because of thick bark or something. These are really dry, shaggy, like, Dr. Seuss succulents with their spindly arms, and they twist up into the sky, and they burn really easily.

So then the question is, well, OK, how well do they resprout after fire? Cody Hanford told me the news there isn't great either. He's the co-executive director of a nonprofit in this area called the Mojave Desert Land Trust.

CODY HANFORD: Really low recovery, unfortunately, is what we would expect, which is just devastating because this is burning one of the best Joshua tree forests ever, in the world, that I've ever seen.

WELLS: So you've got these bigger, hotter fires and these hotter, drier conditions. That just makes new growth really tough.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, that's rough to hear what he had to say there. I know there have been efforts to protect Joshua trees. The state of California passed a law about a month ago to do just that. Does that help at all?

WELLS: It doesn't help as much as you'd think because - so there's actually two Joshua tree species. The one that just protects the Western Joshua tree, which is the one that California passed, but the ones that are burning right now are Eastern Joshua trees. There was a push to designate both of those species as federally endangered, and that would have made it harder for, like, solar companies and real estate developers to kill them. But in March, the verdict was, you know, no, they're too resilient, and they're too abundant. Here's Hanford again.

HANFORD: Someone probably said, hey, look, the Mojave Preserve has millions of Joshua trees, so we're good. But in one day, you know, two days or three days, a major fire can take out a large percentage of those.

WELLS: And remember, this is in a national preserve. So we're talking about some of the most protected Joshua trees in the world. And yet climate change is still threatening them.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, I know firefighters are working to try to contain the York fire, but strong winds might be happening later this week - could make that really tough. What's the plan to help Joshua trees recover?

WELLS: Well, in 2020, with the Dome fire, the National Park Service and a bunch of volunteers sort of planted and watered new Joshua trees, which is actually really tough in this water-scarce desert. But what's going to happen with this one is kind of still TBD. We're really all just waiting to see how devastating this will be and what work will need to get done.

MARTÍNEZ: Caleigh Wells is a reporter with member station KCRW in Santa Monica. Caleigh, thanks.

WELLS: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Caleigh Wells