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Jul 5, 2013 10:36 AM by Ryan Haarer

Expert says severe wildfires could forever change the landscape

TUCSON- Wildfires are a natural part of the southwestern ecosystem. But, some experts say recent fires are more severe than ever thanks to a changing environment.

The ferocity of the Yarnell Hill Wildfire has researchers thinking about the past.

"Fire was a more constant, frequent presence on the landscape. And the result was we didn't see the accumulation of fuels we have now which supports this explosive fire behavior. So before there were fire departments to come and put fires out, fires were all over the landscape but it was a more benign presence," said Dr. Donald Falk, a fire ecology professor at the University of Arizona.

Falk says that while hot, dry, weather is nothing new or unusual, the last decade has been the warmest on record and last year the driest of that decade.

"We also have to look at long term trends in Arizona where more and more of our forested landscapes are becoming vulnerable to these very large spreading fires. And as that happens it's not always the case that they are going to become the same forest they were before the fire. In many cases we are seeing forests converted to shrub land or grassland and so our landscapes ten years from now could look very different in these areas that have repeated fires."

More prescribed burns could help limit the severity of wildfires. However, tight budgets at state and federal levels put a limit on how often that can be done, not to mention some folks living in these forest communities would rather not look at a charred backyard.

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