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Arizona Burning

BY Jim Harkin

The severity of Arizona's forest fires is magnified by a century's worth of forest mismanagement.

Today we increasingly confront the implications of human-induced climate change, not as a matter of marshalling scientific evidence but, as mainstream media reportage frequently implies, a condition to be believed or disbelieved as a matter of individual faith. Ironies abound: In one breath climate deniers convert the Genesis story of creation into an assertion of scientific fact. In another, they insist that the scientific theory of anthropomorphic climate change is a faith-based proposition.

What is not in dispute is that, as In These Times went to press, several forest fires were cooking the pine forests of Arizona. The forest fire season from about March through June (when the summer rains normally arrive) is an accepted if unloved aspect of life in Arizona. Yet the present circumstances are a lot to bear.

The Wallow Fire, which raged through remote areas of north and eastern Arizona beginning in late May, consumed about 850 square miles and caused modest property damage. The Horseshoe 2 Fire in the Chiricahuas Mountains in southeastern Arizona, which started in early May, affected about 348 square miles. The Monument Fire, which started in mid-June and burned only 47 square miles, most threatened settled areas. On very short notice 10,000 people evacuated nearly 2,000 homes and businesses, more than 65 of which have been torched. The fire is now almost completely contained, but seasonal winds in a dry area mean that a lot of fingers remain crossed.

The severity of these fires is magnified by a century’s worth of forest mismanagement that emphasized fire suppression as more and more people have gone deeper and deeper into the woods for residence, recreation and business. Fewer smaller natural fires have resulted in an abundance of dead forest material, which, when ignited, burns hot longer over broader territories, causes greater damage to wildlife and makes post-conflagration habitat recovery more difficult.

Arizona has not had a string of good rain years since the earlier 1990s. Indeed, we Arizonans would welcome “moderate” drought conditions as good news. More recently, milder winters and warmer, drier summers have caused a surge in bark beetles, which chew the space between bark and wood of pine trees, turning forests into a package of Roman candles waiting to be ignited.

The job of putting out forest fires is costly and made more difficult in an era when public budgets are as ravaged as some Arizona forests. The state has been unable to strike the balance between finding the millions of dollars needed to de-stress the forests and finding the many, many millions more needed to extinguish a serious fire and reconstruct the burned-out areas.

In Arizona, as in other parts of the West, our forests strain under daunting environmental circumstances–circumstances not made easier when Sen. John McCain (R–Ariz.) stokes the fires of intolerance with irresponsible statements such as: “There is substantial evidence that some of these fires have been caused by people who have crossed our border illegally.”

Climatic disruptions seem to be intensifying quickly. It is plausible that Arizona’s enormously stressed forests are going to deteriorate under the force of conditions that defy successful human intervention. Replace “Arizona’s enormously stressed forests” for “the frayed fabric of America’s stressed public institutions.” Does the proposition resonate? Let’s hope not.

This article was updated for web publication with current information about Wallow, Horseshoe 2 and Monument fires.

Jim Harkin, a member of the In These Times Board of Directors, lives in Tucson, Ariz. His was one of more than 300 homes lost in the Aspen Fire of June-July 2003, which torched 132 square miles of the Coronado National Forest.

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