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.

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