If you doubt that climate change is transforming the American landscape, go to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sweltering temperatures there have broken records this summer, and a seemingly permanent orange haze of smoke hangs in the air from multiple wildfires.
Take a ride into the mountains and you’ll see one blackened ridge after another where burns in the past few years have ravaged the national forest. Again, this year, fires in New Mexico and neighboring states of Colorado and Arizona are destroying wilderness areas.
Fire danger is expected to remain abnormally high for the rest of the summer throughout much of the Intermountain West. But “abnormal” fire risks have become the new normal.
The tragic death of 19 firefighters in the Yarnell fire near Prescott, Arizona last Sunday shows just how dangerous these highly unpredictable wind-driven wildfires can be.
The last 10 years have seen more than 60 mega-fires over 100,000 acres in size in the West. When they get that big, firefighters often let them burn themselves out, over a period of weeks, or even months. These fires typically leave a scorched earth behind that researchers are beginning to fear may never come back as forest again.
Fires, of course, are a natural part of the forest lifecycle, clearing out old stands and making way for vigorous new growth out of the carbon-rich ashes. What is not natural is the frequency and destructiveness of the wildfires in the past decade—fires which move faster, burn hotter, and are proving harder to manage than ever before. These wildfires are not exactly natural, because scientists believe that some of the causes, at least, are human-created.