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How the West Was Lost

The American West in flames.

| Thu Jun. 16, 2011 4:50 PM PDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

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 last week and only 18% so early in the new week, 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.

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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 towards 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. Wally 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-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger observed in 2008 when it was California's turn to burn, the fire season is now 365 days long.

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