The American West in Flames
The Fire Next Time
That may explain why ”smoke season” began so early this year, overlapping the spring flood season. Texas and other Western states may be drying up and readying themselves to blow dust your way, but in Utah, where I live, it was an extremely wet winter. Watersheds here are at 200 percent to 700 percent of the normal snowpack (“normal” being an ever more problematic concept out here). Spring weather has become increasingly weird and unpredictable. Last year we had record-breaking heat and early monsoons in May. This year it was unusually cold and damp. The mountains held on to all that accumulating snow, which is now melting quickly and heading downhill all at once.
So although skiers are still riding the mountain slopes of northern Utah, river-rafting guides in the south, famous for their hunger for whitewater excitement, are cancelling trips on the Colorado and Green Rivers because they are flowing so hard and high that navigating them is too risky to try. In our more sedate settings, suburbs and such, sandbags are now ubiquitous. Basement pumps are humming across the state. Reservoirs were emptied ahead of the floods so that they could be refilled with excess runoff, but there is enough snowmelt in our mountains this year to fill them seven times over. Utah Governor Gary Herbert went on television to urge parents to keep children away from fast-moving streams that might sweep them away. Seven children have nonetheless drowned in the past two weeks.
The old gospel got it mostly right when God told Noah, “No more water, the fire next time.” In the West we know that it is not actually a question of either/or, because they go together. First, floods fuel growth, then growth fuels fires, then fires fuel floods. So all that unexpected, unpredicted moisture we got this winter will translate into a fresh layer of lush undergrowth in forests that until very recently were drying up, ravaged by beetles and dying. You may visit us this summer and see all that new green vegetation as so much beautiful scenery, but we know it is also a ticking tinderbox. If Mother Nature flips her fickle toggle switch back to hot and dry, as she surely will, fire will follow.
When fire removes trees, brush and grasses that absorb spring runoff and slow the flow, the next round of floods is accelerated. If the fire is intense enough to bake soils into a water-resistant crust, the next floods will start landslides and muddy rivers. The silt from all that erosion will clog reservoirs, reducing their capacity both to store water and to mitigate floods. That’s how a self-reinforcing feedback loop works. Back in the days when our weather was far more benign and predictable, this dynamic relationship between fire and flood was predictable and manageable. Today, it is not.
It may be hard to draw a direct line of cause and effect between global warming (or weirding) and a chain of tornadoes sawing through Joplin, while the record-breaking blizzards of 2011 may seem to contradict the very notion that the planet is getting hotter. But the droughts, pestilence and fires we are experiencing in the West are logical and obvious signs that the planet is overheating. We would be wise and prudent to pay attention and act boldly.
Biological diversity, ecological services like pollination and water filtration, and the powerful global currents of wind and water are the operating systems of all life on Earth, including humans. For thousands of years, we have depended on benign and predictable weather patterns that generally vary modestly from year to year. The agricultural system that has fed us since the dawn of history was based on a climate and seasonal swings that were familiar and expectable.
Ask any farmer if he can grow grain without rain or plant seeds in a flooded field. Signs that life’s operating systems are swinging chaotically from one extreme to another should be a wake-up call to make real plans to kick our carbon-based energy addictions while conserving and restoring ecosystems under stress.
In the process, we’ll need a new vision of who we are and what we are about. For many generations we believed that developing westward, one frontier after the next, was the nation’s Manifest Destiny. We eliminated the Indians and the bison in our way, broke the prairies with our plows, dammed raging rivers, piped the captured water to make the desert bloom and eventually filled the valleys with cities, suburbs and roads.
The Wild West was tamed. In fact, we didn’t hesitate to overload its carrying capacity by over-allocating precious water for such dubious purposes as growing rice in Arizona or building spectacular fountains and golf courses in Las Vegas. We used the deserts near my Utah home as a dumping ground for toxic and radioactive wastes from faraway industrial operations. The sacrifice zones in the Great Basin Desert where we tested bombs and missiles helped our military project the power that underpinned an empire. The iconic landscapes of the West even inspired us to think that we were exceptional and brave in ways not common to humanity, and so were not subject to the limitations of other peoples—or even of nature itself.
But whatever we preferred to think, the limits have always been there. Nature has only so much fresh water, fertile soil, timber and oil. The atmosphere can only absorb so much carbon dioxide and stay benign and predictable. When you overload the carrying capacity of your environment, there is hell to pay, which means that monster fires are here to stay.
After the American West was conquered, tamed, used and abused, the frontier of our civilizing ambitions moved abroad, was subsumed by a cold war, was assigned to outer space and now drives a Humvee through places like Iraq and Afghanistan. On an overheating planet, if the West is still our place of desire and exception, then fire is our modern manifest destiny—and the West is ours to lose.