The Western Forests May Be Going Away

All across the western United States, the forests are burning. In normal times, wildfires can be a good thing, clearing out dead material and making room for new growth.

These are not normal times. The forests are burning, and in some cases they're not coming back.

We are in the middle of this 30,000-acre, near-treeless hole," said Craig D. Allen, a research ecologist with the United States Geological Survey. If historical patterns had held, the remaining pines would by now be preparing seeds to drop and start the cycle of regrowth.

"But the mother pines are nowhere in sight. Nature's script has been disrupted by a series of unusually intense, unusually large fires -- a product of many factors that include government firefighting policies, climate change and bad luck.


That means forest recovery can be slow, or worse, said Donald A. Falk, a fire expert at the University of Arizona. "That's a recovery process that could take centuries -- and given where climate is going, it might never recover," he said.

This wildfire season is smashing records, driving people from their homes and swallowing whole communities. The Valley and Butte fires in California are among the worst ever in state history, between them killing at least 5 people and destroying 1,400 homes.

When you look at the overall numbers for this year to date from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the scope of this year's wildfire season is staggering.

  • In August, fires burned 2,475,720 -- the fourth most on record. Last month saw each wildfire, on average, burn 327.7 acres, the third most on record.

  • For the June-August period this year, fires burned 7,805,421 acres -- also the most on record for that time frame. During that time, we had on average 352.1 acres burned per fire--the most on record.
  • For January through August 2015, fires burned 8,202,557 acres (most on record), which is 187.2 acres burned/fire--the most on record.
  • The NOAA statistics currently available may actually be low-balling the devastation somewhat. Estimates released yesterday from the National Interagency Fire Center actually put the year-to-date total at more than nine million acres burned. That extent of burnt acreage has only been reached four times in recorded U.S. history, and all four times have occurred since the year 2000. In fact, we're within 10 percent of this being the worst year on record, ever...and we still have more than a month to go before the fire season for this year is over.

    This wildfire season has been absolutely incredible, and not only because of the extent of the fires. The location is important, as well. More than half of the acreage burned was in the U.S. was in Alaska, and Canada and Russia are also struggling with their on blazes. Fires in these areas are especially dangerous to the climate, because they ignite the long-buried or frozen organic matter, releasing a long-sequestered store of carbon.

    Intense drought conditions and record heat along the western half of the U.S. has led to an apocalyptic wildfire scenario for North America -- but try to wrap your head around the future: next year is expected to be even hotter than this year, and over the next few decades, the wildfire risk is expected to multiply six-fold and the area of land cleared by fires is expected to double.

    As world leaders prepare for the Paris climate summit at the end of the year, they need to realize that the nightmare scenarios scientists have warned about are not in the far-off future. They are right here, right now, and if we cannot rise to the occasion, then our future is going to burn.'s burning now.

    Go see the western forests while you can, friends. They may be going away.