Who's to blame for the wild fires?

CHICAGO -- Mega-fires are torching America as never before, with towering infernos scorching more than 1.5 million acres this year, consuming homes block by block and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee.

CHICAGO -- Mega-fires are torching America as never before, with towering infernos scorching more than 1.5 million acres this year, consuming homes block by block and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee.

And as numerous large fires barrel over Southern California, experts warn things probably will only get worse, especially across the West in the coming years.

Given climate changes leading to years of extreme drought, massive overbuilding and a century of checkered forest management, vast swaths of the nation will be imperiled, they say.

Americans will suffer more deaths, endure billions of dollars in property losses, struggle with damaged ecosystems and see their health impaired by the huge plumes of secondhand smoke spewing noxious fumes into the atmosphere, they say.

"The fires cover many more acres, are showing greater resistance to control and are faster to spread," said Matt Mathes, a spokesman for the USDA Forest Service in Northern California. "When they are fanned by the big winds, like we see in Southern California, all we can do is get out of the way."


The consuming ways of humans and the vicissitudes of nature are combining for what foresters and climatologists call a perfect storm for wildfires. Last year was the worst recorded mega-fire season, experts say, and with the fires now across Southern California, this year probably will end up being worse.

Fires -- often started by lightning -- have been nature's way of clearing dense brush and rejuvenating the cycle of forest life. But in the early 1900s, Americans began fighting fires with vigor to save the timber. The result: more trees and brush that only fuel fires and spread them faster.

And population growth boomed as well, leading Americans to construct homes in what used to be rural areas. Now when a fire starts, the burning buildings heat up and enlarge the infernos while sending out embers that spark even more fires downwind.

The breeding grounds for fires have been made more fertile in recent years by a shift in the global climate that has led to prolonged droughts. High mountain regions once wet and damp even in summer are now often bone dry.

"With the early spring snowmelt, everything dries out," said Steve Running, a University of Montana forestry professor. "It used to be that large blankets of snow lasted a long time, and that kept the ground wet for a long time. That's not the case any more."

Tight groves of trees, dense housing developments and a dried out landscape make perfect fodder for mega-fires, experts said. Where once a fire the size of an average small town was rare, now a 100,000-acre fire is commonplace.

By the time the firefighters arrive, the fires are out of control, especially when fanned by fierce winds such as the October Santa Anas in California.

"There's so much fuel you can't fight the fires," said Thomas Cahill, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Davis.


An easing wind Wednesday gave firefighters hope that they could begin to gain ground against the flames.

Meanwhile, not only are lives disrupted, but personal health is at risk from dense smoke.

"There is growing scientific concurrence that climate change will increase areas burned, which will result in increased emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from wildfires," Ann Bartuska, a fire ecology researcher for the USDA Forest Service, testified before Congress last month.

The giant skyscraper plumes of smoke can travel for hundreds of miles.

"It's almost all inhalable, too, and it's very bad for you," said Cahill, who studies the impact of wildfire smoke on people and the landscape.

So what to do to slow the increasing occurrence of mega-fires?

There is mounting consensus among scientists that global warming must be taken into account when deciding eco-management. There are no signs that drought conditions will be easing soon, they say.

"We really can't control the dryness of the landscape," said Running, who recently shared in the Nobel Peace Prize for his research on global warming as part of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "You can only control the levels of fuels."


Scientists say that means an expensive and years-long program of thinning the forests of trees. And it also means limits on development in areas prone to fires, they say.

"Everyone would like to live in two-acre lots in the forest," said Volker Radeloff, an associate professor of forestry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "But it's just not the right policy if we want to see less of these kinds of fires."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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