By Katrina Marland

Waldo Canyon Wildfire Colorado Springs
View of the Waldo Canyon fire from Garden of the Gods, a major tourist attraction in Colorado Springs Photo: Don Savage Photography

As quickly as I’ve adapted to being back here in our nation’s capital, it doesn’t seem like so very long ago that I was at home in Colorado Springs, with the Rockies on my doorstep and a view of Pike’s Peak out the window. So you can imagine how the headlines coming from the fiery front lines in Colorado are grabbing my attention.

As I’m writing this, the Waldo Canyon Fire has burned through more than 18,500 acres near Colorado Springs and has forced the evacuation of 32,000 people from the city’s outskirts. The High Park Fire, now the second largest to ever hit Colorado, is burning near Fort Collins; it has destroyed hundreds of homes, forced the evacuation of 4,300 residents and claimed at least one life. According to Reuters, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has declared this “the worst fire season in the history of Colorado.”

The Southwest is no stranger to wildfires, but lately conditions across the region are drier, hotter and windier than the norm. Experts agree that the low amount of winter precipitation means the 2012 wildfire season is likely to get worse before it gets better. For the towns and cities threatened by these fires and the others burning across the Southwest, the impacts are felt in the losses to property, lives and economies. But what will the cost be for the landscape itself?

High Park Fire Ft. Collins, Colorado
National Guardsmen approach the High Park Fire near Ft. Collins, Colorado Photo: Sgt. Jess Geffre, Army National Guard

Craig Allen, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, asserts that the severe wildfires throughout the Southwest, combined with the effects of climate change on the region, are transforming the landscape from forests to grassland. Using tree ring data, scientists studying the climate history of the Southwest have established that the region is historically prone to frequent fires, but not intense ones — fires of the past rarely reached the treetops. These regular fires cleared the forests of surface debris and prevented overcrowding without permanently damaging the forest itself.

Over the years, forest management practices have changed the game, leading to denser forests with too much fuel — fuel that burns hot enough to destroy the forest. Once this happens, the ecosystem has to start from scratch. Allen notes that tree species common to southwestern forests are struggling to reestablish themselves in an environment that is even drier and hotter than they’re used to. Without new trees and their seeds, every acre of forest burned has less chance of ever becoming a forest again. Instead, hardier, more opportunistic plant species like grasses and brush take hold. As this process occurs over and over again, we may see more acres of grassland rise up where forests once took root. As commonplace as wildfires have become across the Southwest, we may need to start seeing these fires not just as natural disasters, but as agents of permanent change, capable of irreversibly transforming landscapes.