Arizona Burning

Jim Harkin

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.

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

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.

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