Flash Point

The West is burning. Is global 'weirding' to blame?

New Mexico is on fire.

For weeks, the skies have been filled with a postapocalyptic haze. The caustic scent of smoke pervades our streets, our homes, our cars and—though we can no longer enter them—our forests.

Over the past weekend, two new fires ignited, including one—the Las Conchas fire, which at press time covered a whopping 60,740 acres—threatening Los Alamos National Laboratory.

But it’s not just the big, headline-ready conflagrations: Close to 1,000 fires have ignited around the state since last July, most of them in the past few months. For a state already plagued by budget shortfalls and a dismal economy, the results are catastrophic: more than 100 structures (including at least 43 homes) destroyed, with an estimated cost of more than $19 million.

And it’s only June.

In the following essay, Chip Ward discusses the myriad origins of the flames licking across the West, from Texas to California and north to Colorado and Utah. Butfor Dan Ware, the fire information officer for the New Mexico State Forestry Division (part of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department), that larger question is an abstraction. It’s the effect, not the cause, that worries him.

“In my mind, it doesn’t matter if it has anything to do with climate change; it’s here,” Ware says. “The fire season is here.”

Indeed: More than 711,000 acres of New Mexico have burned already (see map, page 16). And though the forests have closed and the campfire restrictions have been in place before, Ware may be the only one who describes this season’s fires as “typical.”

It’s a La Niña year, Ware explains—one that brings warmer, drier conditions to the Southwest.

“Every time we’ve had a La Niña [weather pattern], we’ve had this kind of fire season,” Ware says. “Add to that the fact that we didn’t get much of a monsoon season last year. That was kind of the precipitator: All the vegetation that grew up from the winter of ’09-’10 just started dying because we didn’t get a monsoon.”

Then came a mild winter—with the exception of one anomalous cold snap in February—and a hot, windy spring. Taken together, it’s a recipe for forest fires.

“It’s just kind of our time,” Ware says. “We’ve had the potential for these kinds of fires every year.”

The longer the state goes without fires, the more that potential builds. Forests should burn regularly, Ware says; before humans inhabited forested areas, cyclical fires ignited every seven to 10 years. They cleared out the underbrush, thinning the forest to a healthy level. But with human habitation, everything changed.

“In areas where we may have, in previous  decades, allowed a fire to burn because it’s doing good, we now have people there,” Ware says. “We have to put the fire out.”

For decades, preventing forest fires was the central tenet of good forest management. (Remember Smokey Bear?) More recently, forest managers have recognized the value of smaller, more regular fires in preventing the kinds of huge, catastrophic ones that have blazed across the Southwest this summer.

But when too many people inhabit a forested area, Ware says, controlled burning may not happen—and that’s when a fire becomes an unmanageable inferno.

“Instead of a slow-moving, ground-based wildfire, you get crowning, treetop-to-treetop super-fires that lay waste to an entire forest,” Ware says. Arizona’s enormous Wallow fire is a case in point: After nearly a month of firefighting, the blaze—which has already scorched more than 500,000 acres—remains only partially contained.

As with any disaster, New Mexico’s fires have acquired a political element. This March, to environmental groups’ chagrin, Republican US Rep. Steve Pearce introduced a bill to revive logging in southern New Mexico. On June 10, his office sent out a press release linking the Wallow fire with “environmental lawsuits and reckless policies [that] have prevented healthy forest management.”

But Ware says there’s room for responsible—“sustainable” is the word he uses—timber harvesting, and that it can help alleviate the risk of mega-fires.

“We’re not talking about clear-cutting,” he says. “[People] think anytime you cut down the tree it’s a bad thing, but they don’t understand that we don’t have enough water to sustain our forests the way they are.”

Ware’s job is to promote responsible forest management around the state; he spends much of his time helping homeowners prepare for fires by pruning trees, installing xeriscaping to replace thick underbrush and moving woodpiles away from homes. (Visit firewise.org for more tips.)

If anything good does come out of this fire season, he adds, it will be a greater awareness both of the risk of forest fires and the steps New Mexicans can take to prevent them.

But when asked what he calls “the $64 million question”—whether climate change caused this—Ware demurs.

“I’ll let the scientists and the politicians debate climate change,” Ware says. “The only thing I care about right now is communities protecting themselves. Whether it’s caused by climate change or whether it’s just cyclical [weather patterns] doesn’t matter: We have communities at risk, and we need the communities to realize how at risk they are and take steps to promote fire safety.”

It’s a practical answer, if a safe one.

But if, as Ward argues, global climate change has a role in transforming the West from recreational paradise into scorched moonscape, then fire safety alone simply won’t be enough.

—Alexa Schirtzinger

How the West Was Lost

The American West in Flames

By Chip Ward

Arizona is burning. Texas, too. New Mexico is next. If you need a grim reminder that an already arid West is burning up and blowing away, here it is. As I write this, more than 700 square miles of Arizona and more than 4,300 square miles of Texas have been swept by monster wildfires. Consider those massive columns of acrid smoke drifting eastward as a kind of smoke signal warning us that a globally warming world is not a matter of some future worst-case scenario. It’s happening right here, right now.

Air tankers have been dropping fire retardant on what is being called the Wallow fire in Arizona and firefighting crews have been mobilized from across the West, but the fire remained “zero contained” for most of [early June] and only 18 percent [in mid-June], too big to touch with mere human tools like hoses, shovels, saws and bulldozers. Walls of flame 100 feet high rolled over the land like a tsunami from Hades. The heat from such a fire is so intense and immense that it can create small tornadoes of red embers that cannot be knocked down and smothered by water or chemicals. These are not your grandfather’s forest fires.

Because the burn area in eastern Arizona is sparsely populated, damage to property so far has been minimal compared to, say, wildfire destruction in California, where the interface of civilization and wilderness is growing ever more crowded. However, the devastation to life in the fire zone, from microbiotic communities that hold soil and crucial nutrients in place to more popular species like deer, elk, bear, fish and birds--already hard-pressed to cope with the rapidity of climate change--will be catastrophic.

The vastness of the American West holds rainforests, deserts and everything in between, so weather patterns and moisture vary. Nonetheless, we have been experiencing a historic drought for about a decade in significant parts of the region. As topsoil dries out, microbial dynamics change and native plants either die or move uphill toward cooler temperatures and more moisture. Wildlife that depends on the seeds, nuts, leaves, shade and shelter follows the plants--if it can.

Plants and animals are usually able to adapt to slow and steady changes in their habitat, but rapid and uncertain seasonal transformations in weather patterns mean that the timing for such basic ecological processes as seed germination, pollination, migration and hibernation is also disrupted. The challenge of adapting to such fundamental changes can be overwhelming.

And if evolving at warp speed (while Mother Nature experiences hot flashes) isn’t enough, plants, animals and birds are struggling within previously reduced and fragmented habitats. In other words, wildlife already thrown off the mothership now finds the lifeboats, those remnants of their former habitats, on fire. Sometimes extinction happens with a whimper, sometimes with a crackle and a blast.

As for the humans in this drama, I can tell you from personal experience that thousands of people in Arizona and New Mexico are living in fear. A forest fire is a monster you can see. It looks over your shoulder 24 hours a day for days on end. You pack your most precious possessions, gather necessary documents and point your car or truck toward the road for a quick get-away. If you have a trailer, you load and hitch it. If you have pets or large animals like a horse, cattle or sheep, you think of how you’re going to get them to safety. If you have elderly neighbors or family in the area, you check on them. And as you wait, watch and worry, you choke on smoke, rub itching eyes and sneeze fitfully. After a couple of days of that omnipresent smoke, almost everyone you meet has a headache. You know that when it is over, even if you’re among the lucky ones whose homes still stand, you will witness and share in the suffering of neighbors and mourn the loss of cherished places, of shaded streams and flowered meadows, grand vistas and the lost aroma of the deep woods.

Cue the Inferno

These past few years, mega-fires in the West have become ever more routine. Though their estimates and measurements may vary, the experts who study these phenomena all agree that wildfires today are bigger, last longer and are more frequent. A big fire used to burn perhaps 30 square miles. Today, wildfires regularly scorch 150-square-mile areas.

Global warming, global weirding, climate change--whatever you prefer to call it--is not just happening in some distant, melting Arctic land out of a storybook. It is not just burning up far-away Russia. It’s here now. The seas have warmed, ice caps are melting and the old reliable ocean currents and atmospheric jet streams are jumping their tracks. The harbingers of a warming planet and the abruptly shifting weather patterns that result vary across the American landscape. Along the vast Mississippi River drainage in the heartland of America, epic floods, like our wildfires in the West, are becoming more frequent. In the Gulf states, it’s monster hurricanes and, in the Midwest, swarms of killer tornadoes signal that things have changed. In the East, it’s those killer heat waves and record-breaking blizzards.

But in the West, we just burn.

Although Western politicians like to blame the dire situation on tree-hugging environmentalists who bring suit to keep loggers from thinning and harvesting the crowded forests, the big picture is far more complicated. According to Wally Covington of Northern Arizona University, a renowned forest ecologist, the problem has been building toward a catastrophe for decades.

Historically, Western forests were relatively thin, and grasses, light shrubs and wildflowers thrived under their canopies. Fires would move through every few years, clearing the accumulated undergrowth and resetting the successional clock. Fire, that is, was an ecological process. Then, in the 1880s, cattle were brought in to graze the native grasses under the forest canopy. As the grass disappeared, fires were limited and smaller trees were able to mature until the land became overcrowded. Invasive species like highly flammable cheat grass also moved in, carried there and distributed in cow dung. Then, foresters began suppressing fires to protect the over-stocked timber that generated revenues and profits.

All this set the stage for catastrophe. Next, a decade of drought weakened millions of trees, making them susceptible to voracious beetles that gnaw them to death. Warmer air carries more moisture, so winters, while wetter than normal, are not as cold. Typical temperatures, in fact, have become mild enough that the beetles, once killed by wintry deep freezes, are now often able to survive until spring, which means that their range is expanding dramatically. Now, thanks to them, whole mountainsides across the West have turned from green to brown.

Finally, spring runoff that used to happen over three months now sometimes comes down torrentially in a single month, which means that the forests are dry longer. Even our lovely iconic stands of aspen trees are dying on parched south-facing slopes. Cue the inferno.

If you live in the West, you can’t help wonder what will burn next. Eastern Colorado, Oklahoma and the Dakotas are, at present, deep in drought and likely candidates. Montana’s lodgepole pine forests are dying and ready to ignite. Colorado’s Grand Mesa is another drying forest area that could go up in flames anytime. Covington estimates that a total of about half a million square miles of Western forests, an area three times the size of California, is now at risk of catastrophic fires. As ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger observed in 2008 when it was California’s turn to burn, the fire season is now 365 days long.

The Fire Next Time

That may explain why ”smoke season” began so early this year, overlapping the spring flood season. Texas and other Western states may be drying up and readying themselves to blow dust your way, but in Utah, where I live, it was an extremely wet winter. Watersheds here are at 200 percent to 700 percent of the normal snowpack (“normal” being an ever more problematic concept out here). Spring weather has become increasingly weird and unpredictable. Last year we had record-breaking heat and early monsoons in May. This year it was unusually cold and damp. The mountains held on to all that accumulating snow, which is now melting quickly and heading downhill all at once.

So although skiers are still riding the mountain slopes of northern Utah, river-rafting guides in the south, famous for their hunger for whitewater excitement, are cancelling trips on the Colorado and Green rivers because they are flowing so hard and high that navigating them is too risky to try. In our more sedate settings, suburbs and such, sandbags are now ubiquitous. Basement pumps are humming across the state. Reservoirs were emptied ahead of the floods so that they could be refilled with excess runoff, but there is enough snowmelt in our mountains this year to fill them seven times over. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert went on television to urge parents to keep children away from fast-moving streams that might sweep them away. Seven children have nonetheless drowned in the past two weeks.

The old gospel got it mostly right when God told Noah, “No more water, the fire next time.” In the West we know that it is not actually a question of either/or, because they go together. First, floods fuel growth, then growth fuels fires, then fires fuel floods. So all that unexpected, unpredicted moisture we got this winter will translate into a fresh layer of lush undergrowth in forests that until very recently were drying up, ravaged by beetles and dying. You may visit us this summer and see all that new green vegetation as so much beautiful scenery, but we know it is also a ticking tinderbox. If Mother Nature flips her fickle toggle switch back to hot and dry, as she surely will, fire will follow.

When fire removes trees, brush and grasses that absorb spring runoff and slow the flow, the next round of floods is accelerated. If the fire is intense enough to bake soils into a water-resistant crust, the next floods will start landslides and muddy rivers. The silt from all that erosion will clog reservoirs, reducing their capacity both to store water and to mitigate floods. That’s how a self-reinforcing feedback loop works. Back in the days when our weather was far more benign and predictable, this dynamic relationship between fire and flood was predictable and manageable. Today, it is not.

It may be hard to draw a direct line of cause and effect between global warming (or weirding) and a chain of tornadoes sawing through Joplin, Mo., while the record-breaking blizzards of 2011 may seem to contradict the very notion that the planet is getting hotter. But the droughts, pestilence and fires we are experiencing in the West are logical and obvious signs that the planet is overheating. We would be wise and prudent to pay attention and act boldly.

Biological diversity, ecological services like pollination and water filtration, and the powerful global currents of wind and water are the operating systems of all life on Earth, including humans. For thousands of years, we have depended on benign and predictable weather patterns that generally vary modestly from year to year. The agricultural system that has fed us since the dawn of history was based on a climate and seasonal swings that were familiar and expectable.

Ask any farmer if he can grow grain without rain or plant seeds in a flooded field. Signs that life’s operating systems are swinging chaotically from one extreme to another should be a wake-up call to make real plans to kick our carbon-based energy addictions while conserving and restoring ecosystems under stress.

In the process, we’ll need a new vision of who we are and what we are about. For many generations we believed that developing westward, one frontier after the next, was the nation’s manifest destiny. We eliminated the Indians and the bison in our way, broke the prairies with our plows, dammed raging rivers, piped the captured water to make the desert bloom and eventually filled the valleys with cities, suburbs, and roads.

The Wild West was tamed. In fact, we didn’t hesitate to overload its carrying capacity by over-allocating precious water for such dubious purposes as growing rice in Arizona or building spectacular fountains and golf courses in Las Vegas. We used the deserts near my Utah home as a dumping ground for toxic and radioactive wastes from far-away industrial operations. The sacrifice zones in the Great Basin Desert where we tested bombs and missiles helped our military project the power that underpinned an empire. The iconic landscapes of the West even inspired us to think that we were exceptional and brave in ways not common to humanity, and so were not subject to the limitations of other peoples--or even of nature itself.

But whatever we preferred to think, the limits have always been there. Nature has only so much fresh water, fertile soil, timber and oil. The atmosphere can only absorb so much carbon dioxide and stay benign and predictable. When you overload the carrying capacity of your environment, there is hell to pay, which means that monster fires are here to stay.

After the American West was conquered, tamed, used and abused, the frontier of our civilizing ambitions moved abroad, was subsumed by a Cold War, was assigned to outer space, and now drives a Humvee through places like Iraq and Afghanistan. On an overheating planet, if the West is still our place of desire and exception, then fire is our modern manifest destiny--and the West is ours to lose.

This essay was originally published on June 16 at TomDispatch.com and is reprinted with permission. A former grassroots organizer and librarian, Chip Ward writes from Torrey, Utah. He is the author of two books, Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West and Hope’s Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land. Read more of his essays at chipwardessays.blogspot.com.

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at]sfreporter.com. Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.