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How the West Was Lost: The American West in Flames

Climate change isn't happening in some distant future. Wildfires in Arizona and Texas remind us that global warming is right here, right now.
 
 
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Arizona is burning. Texas, too. New Mexico is next. If you need a grim reminder that an already arid West is burning up and blowing away, here it is.  As I write this, more than 700 square miles of Arizona and more than 4,300 square miles of Texas have been swept by monster wildfires. Consider those massive columns of acrid smoke drifting eastward as a kind of smoke signal warning us that a globally warming world is not a matter of some future worst-case scenario.  It’s happening right here, right now.

Air tankers have been dropping fire retardant on what is being called the Wallow fire in Arizona and firefighting crews have been mobilized from across the West, but the fire remained “zero contained” for most of last week and only 18% so early in the new week, too big to touch with mere human tools like hoses, shovels, saws, and bulldozers.  Walls of flame 100 feet high rolled over the land like a tsunami from Hades. The heat from such a fire is so intense and immense that it can create small tornadoes of red embers that cannot be knocked down and smothered by water or chemicals. These are not your grandfather’s forest fires.

Because the burn area in eastern Arizona is sparsely populated, damage to property so far has been minimal compared to, say, wildfire destruction in California, where the interface of civilization and wilderness is growing ever more crowded.  However, the devastation to life in the fire zone, from microbiotic communities that hold soil and crucial nutrients in place to more popular species like deer, elk, bear, fish, and birds -- already hard-pressed to cope with the rapidity of climate change -- will be catastrophic. 

The vastness of the American West holds rainforests, deserts, and everything in between, so weather patterns and moisture vary.  Nonetheless, we have been experiencing a historic drought for about a decade in significant parts of the region. As topsoil dries out, microbial dynamics change and native plants either die or move uphill toward cooler temperatures and more moisture.  Wildlife that depends on the seeds, nuts, leaves, shade, and shelter follows the plants -- if it can. 

Plants and animals are usually able to adapt to slow and steady changes in their habitat, but rapid and uncertain seasonal transformations in weather patterns mean that the timing for such basic ecological processes as seed germination, pollination, migration, and hibernation is also disrupted.  The challenge of adapting to such fundamental changes can be overwhelming.

And if evolving at warp speed (while Mother Nature experiences hot flashes) isn’t enough, plants, animals, and birds are struggling within previously reduced and fragmented habitats.  In other words, wildlife already thrown off the mothership now finds the lifeboats, those remnants of their former habitats, on fire. Sometimes extinction happens with a whimper, sometimes with a crackle and a blast.

As for the humans in this drama, I can tell you from personal experience that thousands of people in Arizona and New Mexico are living in fear.  A forest fire is a monster you can see.  It looks over your shoulder 24 hours a day for days on end.  You pack your most precious possessions, gather necessary documents, and point your car or truck toward the road for a quick get-away.  If you have a trailer, you load and hitch it. If you have pets or large animals like a horse, cattle, or sheep, you think of how you’re going to get them to safety.  If you have elderly neighbors or family in the area, you check on them.