The remains of a tree are seen in front of a boulder in the Dome Wilderness area of New Mexico in August 2012. The Las Conchas Fire torched the land in 2011, burning through more than 150,000 acres of forest.
The remains of a tree are seen in front of a boulder in the Dome Wilderness area of New Mexico in August 2012. The Las Conchas Fire torched the land in 2011, burning through more than 150,000 acres of forest. David Gilkey/NPR
On any given day, there's a wildfire burning somewhere in the U.S. — and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Many western forests have evolved with fire, and actually benefit from the occasional wildfire.
A nice little ground fire every few decades cleans house in the forest. It burns the grass and brush, and maybe some smaller trees — the "ladder fuels" that might carry a fire up into the tree canopy. Those canopy fires are the worst kind — they kill forests.
But scientists are discovering that some trees in the West that previously would survive and thrive with small fires are now losing their ability to do so.
Phillip van Mantgem, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, has found a pattern to explain why.
"As we came across areas that were warmer relative to the long-term average, they had a higher chance of mortality, those trees, after they got burned," van Mantgem says.
Trees are no strangers to heat and drought — they're pretty tough. But van Mantgem found that the kind of heat we're seeing in the West recently has made some trees vulnerable, even in small fires.
How that works isn't exactly clear. Van Mantgem says it appears that drought and heat can create air bubbles inside the trees, like the air bubbles that sometimes jam up an engine's fuel system.
"A tree will essentially have a bunch of tubes, a bunch of straws going through them, from the roots up to the leaves, and it's pulling water through its tubes," he says. "And then if you get an air bubble in there, it won't pull water anymore."
Van Mantgem found this fire vulnerability across numerous national parks in the West, including Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Oregon. He found that small, controlled fires set on purpose to help forests were killing trees that normally would have survived.
Scientists say this doesn't bode well for western forests. Lots of computer models of future climate agree that the West will get hotter. And while both heat and drought are implicated here, van Mantgem says temperature is the main culprit.
David Breshears, an ecologist at the University of Arizona, explains that areas can have a decent amount of rainfall, but how much of it the trees actually get depends a lot on how thirsty the atmosphere is and how much moisture the air wants to suck out of the ground.
"And as temperature goes up," Breshears explains, "that demand gets higher, and it makes it much tougher for the trees."
The research is described in the journal Ecology Letters, and Breshears says the breadth of the area studied suggests that this is not an isolated phenomenon.
"It's just another domino in the whole pileup of events that are happening in the West," he says. "These western forests are getting hammered over and over again."
Breshears and other ecologists say that if these forests get hammered enough, they could be replaced with shrubs and other more fire-tolerant species.
"If we have a lot more mortality after these wildfires, that changes what those landscapes are going to look like in the future," he says.