As Fires Grow, a New Landscape Appears in the West

As Fires Grow, a New Landscape Appears in the West



Santa Forest

­Areas in the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico had major fires in 1996 and 2011. Credit Nick Cote for The New York Times

NEAR COCHITI CANYON, N.M. — The hills here are beautiful, a rolling, green landscape of grasses and shrubs under a late-summer sky. But it is starkly different from what was here before: vast forests of ponderosa pine. The repeated blazes that devastated the trees were caused by simple things: an improperly extinguished campfire in 1996, a tree falling on a power line in 2011.

What happened after the fire, however — or, more accurately, what has not happened — was a departure from the normal course of events.

“We are in the middle of this 30,000-acre, near-treeless hole,” said Craig D. Allen, a research ecologist with the United States Geological Survey. If historical patterns had held, the remaining pines would by now be preparing seeds to drop and start the cycle of regrowth.

But the mother pines are nowhere in sight. Nature’s script has been disrupted by a series of unusually intense, unusually large fires — a product of many factors that include government firefighting policies, climate change and bad luck. Read more.