THE BLOG

As the World Burns...

06/24/2013 02:20 pm ET | Updated Aug 24, 2013

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After flying over one of Colorado's massive wildfires in the summer of 2002, then-Governor Bill Owens told reporters "it looks as if all of Colorado is burning today". He was describing the Hayman fire, the worst in state history at the time. It destroyed 133 homes and forced 5,340 people to evacuate.

Ten years later, the Waldo Canyon conflagration in Colorado Springs made the Hayman burn look like a Boy Scout's campfire. Two people were killed, more than 32,000 were forced to evacuate and 347 homes were destroyed. It was a new record.

This year before summer even began, the Black Forest fire near Colorado Springs broke the state record again, turning more than 500 homes to ash in nine days and killing two more people as they tried to escape.

Today, sixteen wildfires reportedly are raging in Colorado. In many parts of the state, smoke is obscuring the mountain views and stinging our throats. It looks again as though all of Colorado is burning.

Wildfires have always been a danger in the West, but not like this. I moved to Colorado in 1995, partly because there was something very special about the air here -- prana perfumed with pine. Now the fires are part of a rapidly changing ecology in the West. Beetles no larger than grains of rice have wiped out millions of acres of pine forest - 3.6 million acres in Colorado and Wyoming at last count. Forest management practices are partly to blame, but a major factor is warmer winters that no longer kill the bugs. From 2009 to 2010, mountain pine beetle "activity" increased more than 10-fold, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The result is mile after mile of dead trees, tinder on massive scale waiting for the next tossed cigarette, arsonist or lightning strike. The fire damage is multiple. When alive, trees are a carbon sponge. As dead trees rot or burn, they turn from a carbon sponge to a carbon source that contributes to climate change. The Canadian forest service estimates that by 2020, beetle kill will release 270 megatons of carbon dioxide from that country's forests. In addition, dead trees don't filter water, purify air, shelter wildlife or perform other "ecosystem services" that forests provide.

Worse, wildfires start a chain reaction of ecosystem damage. When it rains, the dead forest unleashes floods. Its soil erodes, sending mud into the creeks and rivers in its watershed. It's not just Bambi and rainbow trout that suffer. Even if they escape flooding, communities near the forests take an economic hit as fire destroys the recreational value of the natural resources that drew tourists. The fires are a personal pocketbook issue, too. Coloradans who live in the mountains pay dearly for fire insurance these days, if they can find it at all.

Then there's drought, which turns even living forests to tinder. Earlier this month, 12 Colorado counties were officially declared disaster areas because of prolonged drought. When lightening strikes a tree in such conditions, the jolt splits the trunk from top to bottom. The intensive heat energy from the strike can hide at the base of the tree for days before it ignites the dead pine needles and other combustible rubble on the forest floor. Drought also is affecting the flow of the Colorado River, a critical resource for some 40 million people in the West, including farmers, ranchers and cities.

Colorado is by no means the only place that's thirsty and on fire. Wildfires in the Western United States burn twice as much land today as they did 40 years ago; the burn season is nearly three months longer than it was in the 1970s; and firefighters say the fires are so intense that they're destroying the forests' ability to regenerate.

California, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Alaska and Texas are among the states that have suffered historic wildfires in recent years. During the last three decades, "notable" wildfires have burned in China, Russia, Greece, Israel, South Korea, Indonesia, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Bolivia and Australia. Fires and floods from Russia to Canada have been blamed for disrupting world food supplies.

If there is poetic justice in global warming it's that the oil and gas industry, whose products are the principal causes of anthropogenic climate disruption, may end up as one of its victims. Oil and gas production uses lots of water. Most production in America's future is expected to occur in and around Colorado, where ranchers and city folk don't take kindly to water shortages. As water supplies diminish and competition for them grows, clean and dry resources such as wind and solar energy may gain an edge over oil and gas. That will be an interesting development for the bullish prediction that the United States will be the world's top oil producer a few years from now.

Colorado is still one of the most beautiful places on Earth, of course. But if climate scientists are correct, what we're experiencing here and elsewhere in the world is only the first whiff of what's to come. It may not be long before the world's carbon merchants are revealed as the arsonists who set the world on fire and got rich while it burned. Figuratively speaking, of course.

Note: The NASA composite accompanying this post shows fires detected by satellite over a 10-day period. The yellow areas show where the number of fires is especially large.