Burning Ring of Fire

Las Conchas Wildfire Smoke Plume

Are large and frequent wildfires in the Western U.S. becoming the 'New Normal'? That's an unsettling thought, but new research and recent experience point to a smokier future in the West. The basics are this: 100 years of fire suppression have created overly dense forests, and climate change and drought encourage hotter and larger wildfires. The summer of 2011 has been fiery one, leaving many of us concerned for the future.

This year both New Mexico and Arizona have endured the largest wildfires (Wallow and Las Conchas) in each state's history. What do the fires of 2011 indicate for the future? Recent research on wildfire indicates that Western wildfires are likely to become larger and more frequent.

What can be done? If you live in the 'wildland-urban interface' the first task is to create a defensible space around your home. A 100 foot perimeter around house and outbuildings provides access for firefighters and can prevent wildfire from burning your home. Secondly, many western forests need thinning or prescribed burns to bring tree densities down to more healthy levels. More open forests are less likely to have crown fires that burn hot, kill the largest trees and sterilize the soil. Also, after a fire there may be projects organized by the Forest Service or other land managers where you can get involved in forest restoration. Lastly, working to limit climate change is becoming even more important as the effects are better understood.

Fortunately, the summer rain has begun to fall which has dampened forests and raised spirits. This seasonal reprieve will eventually finish the work of dousing this year's fires. But the monsoon rains are only temporary and much work must be done to reduce the threat of catastrophic forest fires.

More Info:

NOAA: Average U.S. temperature increases by 0.5 degrees F

Scientific American: Climate Change Increases Threat of Fire to U.S. West

USFS: Wildland Fire and Climate Change

NASA Models Earth's Fiery Past and Future

Pew Center: Wildfires and Global Climate Change

NAU Ecological Restoration Institute: Crown Fires Contribute to Global Warming Even After Flames are Out

InciWeb - the Incident Information System (wildfire info)

Defensible Space ('Firescaping')

Ring of Fire (song)