Scene Set for Record Wildfires

By David L. Brown

There is a long, hot summer ahead and the toll of wildfires in the West is sure to be a major disaster for many. Already, according to an AP report:

Wildfires have burned more than 2.9 million acres nationwide this year, well ahead of the average of about 900,000 acres by this time of year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Huge grass fires that swept Texas and Oklahoma this spring account for a large part of this year’s high acreage.

Writing from a vantage point in New Mexico, I can report that the potential for more widespread fires is huge and growing. We have had no significant rain since last Summer. Most of the National Forests in the state have been closed to all use, including campgrounds and roads The forests and grasslands are tinder dry and awaiting only a spark to set them off. Even more ominously, this Spring’s weather patterns have been characterized by unusually high temperatures and strong winds — ideal conditions to spread deadly forest and range fires.

David Ponton, a contributor to Star Phoenix Base who lives at the edge of the Jemez Forest, is seriously concerned for the safety of his home of several decades. Aspens on his property are dying from lack of water and caterpillar infestation, Ponderosa pines are stressed and dry, and the forest bed of matted pine needles is dry. David told me recently that he gathered a handful of the pitch-filled needles, placed them in his fireplace, and touched them with a match to see what would happen. They virtually exploded, igniting almost instantly and burning fiercely.

David has been spending his free time clearing away everything from near his house in hopes of creating a fire lane, but should the forest go up in flames he could very well lose his home. And that is only a microcosmic view of the problem, which could affect tens of thousands here in New Mexico alone. Similar threats are looming over regions of Arizona, Colorado, Texas, and other states. At this very time, the upscale Arizona community of Sedona is being threatened by a wildfire, and not for the first time this year. Fires are also burning in Colorado.

So far this season, firefighters have been able to contain the conflagrations to prevent major destruction, but what will happen when there are multiple fires and the resources to fight them are exhausted. It could happen, especially if the on-going drought doesn’t break. Here in New Mexico we had a respite last year after about five dry years, but since last Summer the drought has returned with a vengeance. It is disheartening to see clouds of wind-driven dust and sand obscuring the landscape as “virga” (rain that evaporates before it reaches the ground) hangs overhead — a typical scene here in central New Mexico the past few months.

Forest fires are a part of the natural cycle of nature and actually helps keep forests healthy when allowed to operate as meant by Mother Nature. But through unintended consequences human intervention has created a dangerous situation by artificially suppressing fires for many decades. That has allowed undergrowth and fallen leaves and needles to build up, choking the forests with ready-made kindling. When drought and insect attacks cause trees to begin dying, as has been occurring in the Western U.S., the scene is set for the kinds of major conflagration that can completely destroy a forest.

Yes, it seems it will be a long, hot summer here in the West.

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