WILDFIRES IN THE AMERICAN WEST
The above photo is an image of a burned cholla cactus. I took this photo after the Sears fire ripped through its habitat in September 2020. The Sears Fire burned through nearly 14,500 acres (22.65 sq miles) over the course of a week. It’s hard for me to conceptualize what that coverage genuinely looks like, but this handy-dandy map provides a decent visual. This map allows readers to choose which fire they want to overlay on a city of their choice. By Western wildfire standards, 22.65 sq miles is relatively small. The smallest fire offered on the overlay map is the Castle fire at 134 sq miles, so I have to imagine the Sears Fire just covering a portion of that. The Sears Fire was just one fire out of 2,520 wildfires that Arizona experienced in 2020. The Bush Fire alone burned 193,455 acres (302 sq miles) and grew to become the 5th largest fire in AZ history. On the overlay map, the Beachie Creek Fire (295 sq miles) is the closest equivalent. Overall, 978,519 acres (1,528 sq miles) burned in Arizona in 2020, which is the equivalent of the three biggest fires on the overlay list. (The August Complex Fire at 787 sq miles + The Claremont-Bear Fire at 408 sq miles + The August Complex North Zone Fire at 351 sq miles. Total = 1,546 sq miles)
Arizona is just one state in the American West that is experiencing such wildfires. California experienced 9,917 wildfires in 2020 and saw 4,397,809 acres (6,871 sq miles) burn. Phoenix covers 474 square miles. To visualize what that looks like on the overlay map, I have to imagine the entire city burning 14 1/2 times. I’m sorry, but that’s just impossible for me to wrap my head around. And that’s just the year 2020. There were other large fires before that year, and there will be more fires in the coming future. The fires are not stopping.
Living in the West is not fun anymore. At least, not in summer. It’s almost impossible to plan anything because there’s no guarantee that the forest you want to visit will even be open (or even there). With scorching temperatures, very dry conditions, and the high risk of wildfire activity, the state of Arizona closed five out of its six national forests to all uses, including camping. Even when the forests are open, it’s not very fun to drive to them because you have to drive through scorched landscape to get anywhere. Behold the remnants of the Bush Fire of 2020:
This is the landscape that I see on my way up to my favorite hiking location in Payson, Arizona. To say that it’s depressing doesn’t even describe it. It’s heart-wrenching. I understand that forests easily grow back, but deserts don’t. Deserts don’t typically burn, but they do now because of invasive weeds and grasses. The odds of the saguaros returning are slim. This desert has been murdered, and climate change will keep it deceased.
Climate change will also play a role in how the higher elevation forests will eventually grow back. The returning vegetation might not be the same as what was initially burned. The term “recovery” has an uncertain and complex definition in post-wildfire ecology. Eventually, all forests “recover” in one way or another. But that doesn’t mean the ecosystems are anything like what they were before the fire. Post-fire ecology, compounded by the ongoing drought, is often better suited for invasive plant species. This means that all forests will always harbor the potential to burn. In other words: Rinse, wash, repeat.
Fossil Creek is a rare riparian area within an otherwise arid landscape. It was always my favorite place to go camping. This year, the Backbone Fire (40,855 acres/63 sq miles) burned through Fossil Creek. More than any fire, this one hurts the most. Fossil Creek Wilderness got burned. Over 30 species of trees and shrubs, over 100 species of birds, and thousands of animals such as otters, beavers, leopard frogs, elk, deer, javelina, coyote, skunk, raccoon, ring-tailed cat, fox, mountain lion, and black bear have all been displaced. Who knows where all that nature ran to, or if it even had a chance to escape. The only good news is that fire officials have released a burn severity map for the Backbone Fire which indicates that 63% of the nearly 41,000-acre was either unburned or saw low-intensity flames. Hopefully, Fossil Creek got lucky, but chances are that I won’t know anytime soon as visitors will not be allowed there for quite some time. For now and for the very near future, Fossil Creek will remain essentially off the map, just like so many other places that I used to go to in Arizona.
Arizona is changing, and not for the better. This state has always been hot, but climate change is making it a tinder-box. Every tree is a potential match that can light up a corner of the state. And Arizona is not unique in this regard. Do you want firenadoes? I heard that California had a few of those. Want a current update on how many fires are burning in the West? Just pop on over to Inciweb for that information. Here, I’ll show you the current map as of July 2021:
This, my friends, is the new normal. Our future is burning.
Thanx for reading!