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Arizona wildfire, May 2012, image Melissa Hincha-Ownby
Wildfires have been making headline news across New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Michigan and Colorado since late May. These fires have disrupted daily life, recreation and commerce across thousand of miles. Just over a year ago, we detailed our encounter with the enormous and rapidly spreading Las Conchas fire outside Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. At that time, the Las Conchas was the largest fire recorded in New Mexican history (burning more than 150,000 acres). Now, the Whitewater-Baldy Complex blaze has taken the title as the largest fire in state history, scorching over a quarter of a million acres.
There appears to be an escalating intensity to the annual wildfire season. The Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs, presently 55% contained, is described as the most destructive in state history. Last week 32,000 people were evacuated from the area and 350 homes have been destroyed.
Colorado Springs, June 2012, images daisyelaine
Anthropogenic reasons for the fires are hard to deny. A recent NY Times article cited policies that began in the early 1900s that lead to more trees than are healthy or natural in forests. These policies, coupled with fire suppression and overgrazing by livestock, have set the stage for the unprecedented fires to-date. In the past decade, long periods of dry weather, as a result of climate change, have led to fires that are fundamentally different from those of years prior. Recent fires, instead of assisting in forest regeneration, have not kept to forest floors, where they simply clear accumulated ground cover. The latest fires instead have ascended trees and burned entire forests, irrevocably devastating surrounding soil and eco-systems. Growing data suggest these fires are not within the scale of the naturally balanced carbon cycle, which means that they can exacerbate climate change even further, likely inducing an even more vicious fire cycle in the future.
Dr. Allen, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said that the fires in New Mexico this year have wiped out entire forests of juniper and piñon. These are species that won’t be able to regenerate, especially as annual temperatures continue to rise (NOAA’s May “State of the Climate” report data details that May 2012 was the second warmest May in recorded history). Plants that can grow in the wake of such fires, primarily grasses and shrubs, will not remotely resemble the forests that existed previously. Dr. Allen suggests that there is no way to preserve what is being erased by these fires—adaptation to the new conditions is the only option.
The resulting, continent-wide changes rippling through human lives and landscapes are of acute interest to us here at FOP. Plants, animals and humans are in the midst of confronting unprecedented scales of change. Forests that have been a constant presence for centuries suddenly no longer exist.
In this new environment, configuration appears to be of growing consequence. Borders between “wilderness” and “residential” appear ever more slippery. Where to build? How soon will the “next” event of this magnitude take place? What species can thrive in what becomes of “here”? What tools do we need to navigate this new territory?
We will continue to track these fires. There is much to learn from how various species will reconfigure their lives and systems in response to such unpredictable events of change.
maps of fires currently in-progress as of July 2, 2012, image Google
heat wave map June 17-24, 2012, image via NASA
In related news, a new satellite device for tracking global deforestation was recently released at the Rio+20 sustainability conference.
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