The plants and animals of the southwestern United States are adapted to fire, but not to the sort of super-sized, super-intense fires now raging in Arizona.
The product of drought and human mismanagement, these so-called megafires may change the southwest’s ecology. Mountainside Ponderosa forests could be erased, possibly forever. Fire may become the latest way in which people are profoundly altering modern landscapes.
“If a few acres burn, a forest can recover. But at really large scales, the opportunity to recover is limited,” said forest ecologist Dan Binkley of Colorado State University. “The large-scale devastation has taken away the ecological future.”
Fire itself is not rare in the southwest. It’s a constant feature, not at all distressing, a fact obscured by the tendency of local news stations to seize upon dramatic footage of every flame-encroached house.
But fires like the ongoing Wallow fire, already the largest in Arizona’s recorded history, and the record fires seen in Texas in April, are fairly unusual. They used to happen every few centuries, but now seem to happen every few years.