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Where There’s Smoke…

Anne captured the photo you see above on a late-August morning from the (very crowded) Yavapai overlook on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We had arrived the evening before, enroute to the Grand Canyon Lodge on the canyon’s North Rim, where we would spend the next week. But before breakfast and the drive north, we took the time to shoot a sunrise at the South Rim the next morning.

We weren’t disappointed.

Smoke from a wildfire had settled into the canyon and mixed with the clouds above, creating a most unusual look for the oft-photographed scene. In fact, smoke persisted throughout the trip as the fire continued to burn.

One morning, just as we returned from a session at another smoky sunrise location, we found an empty parking lot and a deserted lodge. The fire, we soon learned, had changed direction overnight and, concerned that it might block access to the only road out, the Park Service had evacuated everyone they could find, leaving only one or two rangers, a skeleton crew from the lodge, and a handful of early-morning hikers and photographers behind. For the rest of that day, we had the entire North Rim of the Grand Canyon to ourselves, a highly unusual occurrence at any National Park. But while we explored and photographed, seeing and inhaling smoke most of that day provided a constant reminder of the wildfire burning just a mile or so away from us.

This all happened more than ten years ago. And that experience came to mind when, just this past week, I heard about a new North Rim wildfire. Burning for approximately two weeks, the lightning-caused Fuller Fire, larger than the one that burned when we visited the North Rim, “has burned 6,000 acres of forested area and is now distressingly close to the State Route 67 highway.” According to the Inquisitr article, the fire, which has forced the closure of several trails in the park, “was aided by the remarkable dry weather of the region in addition to robust winds that have pushed the fire onwards.”

Nor is it the only fire raging in the tinderbox conditions that endanger much of western North America. From as far north as Alberta, Canada—where the Fort McMurray fire burned for more than two months, forcing the evacuation of some 88,000 people, destroying more than 2,400 homes and buildings, and engulfing nearly 1,500,000 acres in flame—to the Southwestern United States, years of drought and climate change have created near perfect conditions for yet another lengthy and dangerous fire season.

As of July 12, more than 41,000,000 Americans are living in areas experiencing conditions ranging from Abnormally Dry (D0) to Exceptional Drought (D4) and placing 65.69% of the Western United States under fire risk.

The state suffering the most severe drought? California. Despite what some truth-challenged politicians might suggest, the U.S. Drought Monitor indicates that as of July 5, the entire state of California is experiencing drought conditions. And much of south-western California currently suffers Extreme (D3) to Exceptional (D4) Drought, conditions that have, to date, led to 10 major California wildfires in just two months. The largest of these, the Erskine fire in Kern County, burned for nearly a month before being contained. It burned more than 48,000 acres, destroyed 257 homes, and resulted in 2 fatalities. Four of the other fires each consumed over 5,000 acres. And though the “smallest” of the 2016 wildfires—Kern county’s Deer fire—lasted only 10 days, it managed to burn nearly 1,800 acres.

The extent of the damage caused by these California fires would not surprise Allison Linville a former Forest Service dispatcher. In her recent Denver Post article, No one can manage Western wildfires anymore, she explains that “decades ago, a large fire was anything over 500 acres. These days, 500 acres would be considered small, and it’s not unusual anymore to see a fire torch 4,000 acres in just a few hours. Recent history tells us there’s a new trajectory for wildfire — toward fires that no one can understand, predict or control.”

Wildfires grow larger at a more accelerated rate than they did in the past and act more erratically and unpredictably, making it more difficult for those fighting them to mount successful campaigns to contain them. They have become, in her estimation, “an unprecedented force,” one whose power is “astonishing and horrifying.” She cites as an example a “wildfire that destroyed 200 homes and killed an older couple near Lake Isabella, Calif., this June.” That Kern-county fire “travelled 11 miles in its first 13 hours. ‘It was like a tornado,’ a homeowner told The Associated Press, ‘but it was fire.’ ”

In a Guardian article published last month—Wildfires engulfing the west coast are fueled by climate change, experts warn—Oliver Milman points out that

Over the past 30 years there has been a fourfold increase in the number of large forest fires in the American west, while the fire season has grown by 84 days to 220 days in this time. The amount of area burned has ballooned by 1,200%, with areas such as the northern Rockies and the north-west particularly badly hit.

Some areas, according to “Dr. Keith Gilless, chair of the California board of forestry and fire protection,” may even face the threat of powerful, year-long wildfire seasons. “In areas like southern California,” he says, “the deployment of staff and resources to deal with wildfire is going to become a permanent feature rather than a seasonal one.”

The size, ferocity, and speed of the wildfires bringing devastation to many areas throughout western North America make us realize how lucky we were ten years ago on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. That was then. Now, however, more and more of the West dries every year as a result of climate change. And as winter temperatures increase and the breeding season for pine bark beetles lengthens, more bark beetle larvae survive through winter months to attack drought-stricken trees throughout the Rocky Mountain, Sierra, and Cascade ranges. Which, of course, results in more fuel for even more ferocious wildfires.

Like Nero, we fiddle with denial while the West burns.

For more articles about the wildfire risk in the Western U.S., see:

Multiple Western States Are Ablaze With Wildfires
Massive wildfires are tearing across the Southwest — and the images are unreal
At least 2 dead, 60,000 acres lost to California wildfires
2016 Canada summer forecast: Severe storms to strike East; Hot, dry weather to worsen drought, exacerbate wildfires in West
Hotter temperatures kick up wildfire danger
National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook
America is too damn hot: U.S. faces dramatic rise in extreme heat and humidity