“The root of America’s wildfire crisis goes back a century, to the “Big Blowup” of 1910, which burned 3 million acres in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana and Idaho. After the Big Blowup, American philosopher William James wrote of extinguishing wildfires as “The Moral Equivalent of War,” suggesting that American youth be conscripted into an “army enlisted against nature.” The U.S. Forest Service complied, eventually implementing an “out by 10 a.m.” policy toward all wildland fires. But in snuffing out every wildfire, managers interrupted one of the forest’s most important processes for maintaining its own health — the regular, small fires that clear out dead timber and fire-prone vegetation from woodlands. In some forests, this suppression of the natural fire cycle effectively stockpiled a century’s worth of fuel, creating explosive forests prone to burn big, fast, and hot. We’re seeing the results right now in Colorado and across the West.
Homebuilding at the edge of the forest has also exploded in recent decades, providing wildfires with new and volatile ignition sources. Census data I analyzed with the I-News Network showed that between 2000 and 2010, more than 100,000 people moved into Colorado’s most flammable forests, as marked on the state’s “red zone” map.
But the greatest impact on the most recent wildfires may well be the changing climate. “What we’re seeing really is a window into what global warming really looks like,” said Princeton University geosciences professor Michael Oppenheimer during a conference call with reporters in the days after the Colorado firestorms. “It looks like heat. It looks like fires.”
And it looks like drought. By June, Colorado’s mountains had just two percent of their normal snowpack for that time of year; with snow, streams, and forests drying up early, fires ignite weeks or months earlier.”
Solid story by a former Colorado forest wildfire firefighter at On Earth