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Another bad wildfire season hits stride, amid worry some forests can’t rebound

The wildfire season of 2013 is already shaping up as one that may rival or surpass 2012 as the worst on record.

The huge Carpenter 1 Fire outside Las Vegas burned over 43 square miles.

As the huge Carpenter 1 Fire outside Las Vegas winds down, having burned over a remarkable 43 square miles, the wildfire season of 2013 is already shaping up as one that may rival or surpass 2012 as the worst on record.

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Already, this year’s Black Forest fire in Colorado has supplanted last year’s Waldo Canyon blaze as the state’s worst in terms of homes lost — 511 versus 346 — although acreage burned in Waldo Canyon was somewhat larger.

(The Waldo Canyon losses as measured by insurance claims will likely remain higher, too, for the territory burned was less densely settled, which encourages people to build even bigger and fancier homes in the fire zone.)

Then there are the deaths of 19 elite firefighters in Arizona’s Yarnell Hill fire at the end of June: the largest single loss in 80 years of combat with wildland fire, and also the largest single loss of firefighters in any single incident since 9/11.

More alarming than individual examples, however, is the overall trend of intensifying wildfire in the United States, especially but not only in the intermountain West.

Last year’s fires were 30 percent above average, in a season that has grown longer by a month at each end, beginning now in May and running through October. And the money allocated for fighting them ran out in August.

The worsening fire seasons are clearly driven by hotter, drier climate regimes and these, in turn, are driven by the general climate trends associated with global warming. Some of the best analysis on these connections has been done by the folks at Climate Central, and this year they have devised an interactive map that lets you see, year by year across the region or in individual states, the correlations linking rising temperatures and shrinking spring snowpacks with higher incidence of fire.

Colorado has experienced the second-highest warming of spring temperatures in the West, after Arizona. Nevada’s snowpack this spring was the lowest in more than 30 years.

And overall, “There are more large fires burning now than at any time in the past 40 years and the total area burned each year has also increased.”

Nevada’s ‘biological disaster’

Nevada’s Mount Charleston, where the Carpenter 1 Fire is winding down, contains scarce or unique habitat for certain species, and the Las Vegas Review-Journal calls the blaze “a ‘biological dis­aster’ that could wipe out several animal species found nowhere else on Earth, according to an expert on rare butterflies native to Mount Charleston.”

“I can’t imagine that the fire could have occurred in a worse place,” said biologist Bruce Boyd on Thursday [July 11]. “I’m talking about potentially more than one extinction event.”

Boyd, who has been studying butterflies in the Spring Mountains since the mid-1990s, said the Carpenter 1 Fire has already burned through some of the richest habitat in the range, and not just for tiny insects. He called the forest and meadows surrounding Griffith Peak and south Kyle Canyon the “biological center of that mountain range.”

“This is a heart attack,” he said.

For many years, ecology-minded scientists have argued for restoring fire to forests as a natural force of renewal, and against the fire-fighting policies of the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies that, for  most of the last century, emphasized extinguishing every fire as soon as possible.

But the sheer size of recent fires, and their rising numbers, is driving concern that in many places the forests may not come back as they were — indeed, may not come back at all.

‘The new normal’

Writing in The Atlantic recently, about “abnormal” fire seasons that appear to be coming “the new normal” in an era of climate change, Richard Schiffman noted that

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. 

In earlier low-grade wildfires, the trees that survived seeded recovery in the next generation. Nowadays, by contrast, the fierce heat of the mega-fires frequently incinerates all of the conifer seeds and seedlings and sterilizes the soil, making it all but impossible for the forest to regenerate.

In the Jemez mountains west of Santa Fe, the charred remnants of the 2011 Las Conchas blaze stretch for miles above the atomic city of Los Alamos. It was the biggest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history, until the following year, when lightning ignited the Whitewater Baldy fire in the southern part of state torching an area nearly half the size of Rhode Island.

Much of the Los Alamos burn resembles today a lunar landscapes — vast slopes of denuded gray soil where little vegetation has come back. Hillsides, once covered with ponderosa pine and squat, drought tolerant piñon and juniper trees, now grow only clumps of cheatgrass, an invasive species, and occasional bush-like shrub oaks. Biologist Craig Allen of the U.S. Geological Survey, who has spent years studying the Southwest forest ecosystem, says that areas like these won’t be forested again in our lifetime, and possibly they never will be.

‘The cost of how we live’

Last month Thomas Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, gave a stark summary of the trends in congressional testimony:

The U.S. fire season begins a month earlier and runs a month longer than it used to. Average acreage burned in recent years is twice the average of 40 years ago. And in the last 20 years, the number of fires “extraordinary” in size, intensity and impact has been steadily rising.

Stephen Pyne, a leading forest-fire historian at Arizona State University, told the Washington Post somewhat more eloquently that

We’re getting large, high-intensity fires where they shouldn’t be. In an ideal world, we would get three or four times more fires than we’re getting, but they would be on a smaller scale. More landscape, but less intensity. We have too many of the wrong kind of fires.

Everything that’s out there, fire reacts to. …  How we develop things, what kind of vegetation we have, how we live on the land, what fire protection measures we take. This is the cost of how we live today.

This year, the Forest Service’s firefighting budget has been reduced 5 percent by the sequester. That can only aggravate the most perverse aspect of its approach to fighting fire — throwing all available resources at fires as they happen, regardless of overall budget, by shifting the bucks from other programs.

In recent years, those shifts have had profound impact on fire prevention. Money initially set aside for fuels reduction — thinning and brush removal from forests made overgrown and unhealthy by a century of fire suppression— and for other prevention efforts ends up getting shifted back to firefighting as demand dictates.

There was a time when that demand was driven by chance — short-lived drought, lightning strikes, careless campers and the like. Now it’s driven by climate change, and the trend line is only too painfully plain.