Why the Southwest is burning

  • William DeBuys


No big thing happens for just one reason. This season’s fires, cutting broad swaths across the Southwest, result from the convergence of three powerful forces: climatic drought, institutional tunnel vision, and old-fashioned human frailty.

On the face of it, the drought is simple: There hasn’t been much rain or snow across much of the region, and the forests are tinder dry. Many people ask if climate change might be a factor. A definite answer is both impossible and obvious to give -- impossible because a 1-to-1 correspondence of cause and effect between something as general as climate change and an event as limited in space and time as a single fire cannot now, nor ever will be established.

But think about it: Can you remember a time when weather-related catastrophes were so continuously in the news? Tornadoes across the Bible Belt. Last year’s floods in Pakistan paired with fires in Siberia, this year’s floods in Queensland, Colombia, China, and along the Mississippi. And the Wallow Fire in Arizona recently topping even the Rodeo-Chediski inferno of 2002. These are just a few dots. There are many more. It is not hard to connect them.

If you charge a mostly closed system with more energy, what should you expect? More movement, more flux, more expression of that energy. The Earth’s climate system, charged with more heat, produces more of what it has always produced: wind, drought, and concentrated precipitation. Its expressions become more extreme. This is global warming. We’ve turned up the amps: Everything is louder. What comes out is often as surprising as it is alarming: It is “global weirding.” And we are just getting started.

But more than climate is at work. To get the fires we have now, there had to have been a fuel buildup of colossal proportions. Credit livestock grazing, which removed grass and other fine fuels from the forests, and a century of fire suppression with producing fire-deprived forests that explode like bombs. Which is where the tunnel vision comes in. The ideology of the Forest Service and its sister agencies through most of the 20th century held that fire was categorically evil. This belief persisted for decades in the face of voluminous empirical data to the contrary. The evidence that the health of many forest ecosystems depended on periodic light fire was ignored for too long.

Looking back, it seems astonishing -- and a betrayal of the public trust -- that our institutions could have been so wrong for so long. But the same kind of fact-denying ideology is even more dangerously prevalent today. Just look at the performance of the U.S. Congress on climate change. Look at the Republican presidential candidates, even those who previously assented to the need to act, skittering away like frightened crabs from the plain fact of rising global temperatures.   

That leaves human frailty. Dropping politeness, you might just call it stupidity. I am not talking about the stupidity of preferring the pronouncements of Rush Limbaugh to those of the National Academies of Science. (The NAS and equivalent institutions in every advanced nation, as well as scores of professional associations in the earth sciences, have stated for the record that global warming is real and is human-caused.) I am talking about the stupidity of playing with matches and with machines that throw sparks in landscapes yearning for ignition. Lightning caused very few of the big Southwestern forest fires of the recent past. To arrive at the mess we’re in, we needed human agency, which means knuckleheads. And we’ve got them in the woods no less than in Congress.

The tragedy embedded in all this is that the people who will suffer most from the present reign of tunnel vision and frailty will not be us, the so-called grown-ups. They will be our children, and their children, and on and on. The changes we have already loaded into the climate system will intensify and ramify onward for generations. And, meanwhile, current government inaction guarantees they will get worse. Ask yourself, is this OK? If not, there are three things to do: Educate, organize, and vote.

William deBuys is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in New Mexico and is the author of the forthcoming book, A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

W John Faust &
W John Faust & Subscriber
Jun 28, 2011 03:58 PM
This is a very nice summary of our current state of desperation here in the Southwest where Limbaughstic legislators (at all levels) insist on dragging us further into the abyss. I do question, however, whether we really have time for educating, organizing and voting. Seems like real salvation will only come from a collapse of the global money economy -- probably not that far off. Not a pretty thought but a planet that continues to hemorrhage its diversity will have to evict us forcefully.
DJ Murphy
DJ Murphy
Jul 05, 2011 10:41 PM
The southwest is burning because folks who have sidewalks think they know what is good for those of us who live in or near the forest and drive on dirt roads. Us dirt road folks (I live in Alpine AZ, right in the middle of the Wallow Fire) knew the forest would burn and burn big. Just a matter of time. Had we been allowed to thin the forest by reasonable tree cutting the forest and the environments of the endangered might have had a chance. Those of us who live in the path of the Wallow fire were evacuated for two weeks and most lost income for that time. The lakes and any kind of fishing will be out of commission for at least a couple of years. Local business can look forward to hard times. Why? Stupidity and polarized thinking. Somebody, certainly not local residents knew what was good for us and the forest. Year round residents up here are a special breed. Car trouble? Someone will stop to help? Nothing to eat? You won't go hungry here. Nothing for your kids at Christmas? Some Santa will find you and your kids. The fire department knows the location of every sick and elderly person in the community. Now businesses are threatened, our landscape is black and our homes are in danger of being washed away by mud slides. Think about that for a while and then talk to me about who are the endangered species.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Jul 06, 2011 04:08 PM
DJ .. define "reasonable tree cutting." Is it clearcutting that loggers want? How many new roads need to be built for it?
Felice Pace
Felice Pace Subscriber
Jul 06, 2011 05:33 PM
Everyone who lives in a forest thinks he knows what it needs. I'm no different. Few trust the forest to tell us what the forest needs. Or maybe the forest doesn't need anything from us...just to be left alone. Few have learned to translate. Humans are so arrogant!
Dave Kangas
Dave Kangas Subscriber
Jul 07, 2011 08:20 AM
The sad reality is that we have choices. We have logging to thin forests or we have fires. We lament about past practice of fighting fires as bad for the forests. Back then, we also had a logging industry to thin the forest. Almost every timber sale out there is hit with a lawsuit for not protecting the environment. The National Forest Service can't create a plan that is not met with lawsuits. I think four times now? Lawsuits stop things from happening and costs millions of dollars. Lawsuits don't foster consensus, lawsuits do not create plans, lawsuits do not create anything positive to move forward with, lawsuits just stop anything from happening. So, now we have large, catostrophic fires. They are not environmentally friendly, yet fires are supposed to be good for the forests? Logging stimulated the local economy, I bet the fire fighters are making good money. For every action, there are winners and losers. The environmetal movement that stopped logging and sucked up millions of dollars that could have been spent on habitat, range improvement, won, or did they? For those that think the forests should be left alone, here is a great example. In many of the western states, the pine bark beetle is killing off whole forests. Forests that in another era would have been logged. Eventually, these will beetle killed trees will burn also, probably catostrophically. While we may not like the timber industry, we also don't like these large fires, do we? So just maybe, timber sales and logging are not that bad on the environment as compared to the alternative. Either way, someone's a winner and someone's a loser, controlled or uncontrolled.
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Jul 07, 2011 11:45 AM
@Dave ... per what you mentioned, and a blog of a week or two ago, there's financial and other motives to set fires. Per the pine bark beetles, it's always easy to pluck a certain era out of the hat. Pre-mechanical logging, in the era before the era you're "plucking," those trees wouldn't have been logged. And, the USFS gets hits with lawsuits because it's largely shown itself to be untrustworthy; or, rather, the higher-ups in BushCo who proposed certain USFS management plans did.