"This is the year we will be able to go in and complete the experiment," says Melissa Savage, professor emeritus of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a trustee of the Valles Caldera National Preserve, west of Santa Fe, N.M. "So much acreage burned, and it burned over so many restoration treatments, that we will get the answer this year" regarding which treatments worked, which didn't, and why, she says.
In 2000, for instance, the US began thinning forests where firefighting efforts over the preceding century had allowed smaller trees and shrubs to build up beyond normal levels. Called the National Fire Plan, the program targeted some 42,500 square miles of forest, especially where forests and communities meet.
Those efforts, and others, are indeed undergoing a big test this year. In Georgia, firefighters are battling a 295,000-acre blaze in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The fire began April 30. And Texas, which begins its tally each Nov. 15, has seen nearly 14,000 fires burn a record 3.2 million acres so far this season.
Meanwhile, firefighters in New Mexico are struggling to contain the Las Conchas fire, which began June 26 and has burned nearly 148,000 acres. In Arizona, the Wallow fire is more than 95 percent contained. That blaze began May 29 and has blackened 538,000 acres, including 15,000 acres in New Mexico. Both fires set state records.