Megafires not perfect storms, just the new normal

A Skycrane helicopter surveys the Chimney Fire to drop water as flames erupt in Juniper Trees July 23, 2012, near the Lee Reservation about 14 miles south of Spring Creek, Nev. AP Photo/Elko Daily Free Press

(TomDispatch) Dire fire conditions, like the inferno of heat, turbulence, and fuel that recently turned 346 homes in Colorado Springs to ash, are now common in the West. A lethal combination of drought, insect plagues, windstorms, and legions of dead, dying, or stressed-out trees constitute what some pundits are calling wildfire's "perfect storm."

They are only half right.

This summer's conditions may indeed be perfect for fire in the Southwest and West, but if you think of it as a "storm," perfect or otherwise -- that is, sudden, violent, and temporary -- then you don't understand what's happening in this country or on this planet. Look at those 346 burnt homes again, or at the High Park fire that ate 87,284 acres and 259 homes west of Fort Collins, or at the Whitewater Baldy Complex fire in New Mexico that began in mid-May, consumed almost 300,000 acres, and is still smoldering, and what you have is evidence of the new normal in the American West.

For some time, climatologists have been warning us that much of the West is on the verge of downshifting to a new, perilous level of aridity. Droughts like those that shaped the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and the even drier 1950s will soon be "the new climatology" of the region -- not passing phenomena but terrifying business-as-usual weather. Western forests already show the effects of this transformation.

If you surf the blogosphere looking for fire information, pretty quickly you'll notice a dust devil of "facts" blowing back and forth: big fires are four times more common than they used to be; the biggest fires are six-and-a-half times larger than the monster fires of yesteryear; and owing to a warmer climate, fires are erupting earlier in the spring and subsiding later in the fall. Nowadays, the fire season is two and a half months longer than it was 30 years ago.

All of this is hair-raisingly true. Or at least it was, until things got worse. After all, those figures don't come from this summer's fire disasters but from a study published in 2006 that compared then-recent fires, including the record-setting blazes of the early 2000s, with what now seem the good old days of 1970 to 1986. The data-gathering in the report, however, only ran through 2003. Since then, the western drought has intensified, and virtually every one of those recent records -- for fire size, damage, and cost of suppression -- has since been surpassed.

New Mexico's Jemez Mountains are a case in point. Over the course of two weeks in 2000, the Cerro Grande fire burned 43,000 acres, destroying 400 homes in the nuclear research city of Los Alamos. At the time, to most of us living in New Mexico, Cerro Grande seemed a vision of the Apocalypse. Then, the Las Conchas fire erupted in 2011 on land adjacent to Cerro Grande's scar and gave a master class in what the oxygen planet can do when it really struts its stuff.

The Las Conchas fire burned 43,000 acres, equaling Cerro Grande's achievement, in its first fourteen hours. Its smoke plume rose to the stratosphere, and if the light was right, you could see within it rose-red columns of fire -- combusting gases -- flashing like lightning a mile or more above the land. Eventually the Las Conchas fire spread to 156,593 acres, setting a record as New Mexico's largest fire in historic times.

It was a stunning event. Its heat was so intense that, in some of the canyons it torched, every living plant died, even to the last sprigs of grass on isolated cliff ledges. In one instance, the needles of the ponderosa pines were not consumed, but bent horizontally as though by a ferocious wind. No one really knows how those trees died, but one explanation holds that they were flash-blazed by a superheated wind, perhaps a collapsing column of fire, and that the wind, having already burned up its supply of oxygen, welded the trees by heat alone into their final posture of death.

It seemed likely that the Las Conchas record would last years, if not decades. It didn't. This year the Whitewater Baldy fire in the southwest of the state burned an area almost twice as large.

Half Now, Half Later?

In 2007, Tom Swetnam, a fire expert and director of the laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona, gave an interview to CBS's "60 Minutes." Asked to peer into his crystal ball, he said he thought the Southwest might lose half its existing forests to fire and insects over the several decades to come. He immediately regretted the statement. It wasn't scientific; he couldn't back it up; it was a shot from the hip, a WAG, a wild-ass guess.

(Above, watch a 2009 re-broadcast of that "60 Minutes" piece)

Swetnam's subsequent work, however, buttressed that WAG. In 2010, he and several colleagues quantified the loss of southwestern forestland from 1984 to 2008. It was a hefty 18%. They concluded that "only two more recurrences of droughts and die-offs similar or worse than the recent events" might cause total forest loss to exceed 50%. With the colossal fires of 2011 and 2012, including Arizona's Wallow fire, which consumed more than half-a-million acres, the region is on track to reach that mark by mid-century, or sooner.

William deBuys, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of seven books, most recently "A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest" (Oxford, 2011). He has long been involved in environmental affairs in the Southwest, including service as founding chairman of the Valles Caldera Trust, which administers the 87,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which deBuys discusses where heat, fire, and climate change are taking us, click here or download it to your iPod here. This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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