The windswept fire burning through eastern Arizona is now bigger than Phoenix, the Los Angeles Times reports, covering nearly 400,000 acres and still defying every attempt to contain it. The blaze forced a complete evacuation of Eagar and Springerville on Wednesday, and now the already-evacuated hamlet of Greer is on the cusp of being destroyed, according to the Arizona Republic. Firefighters had to back out of Greer Wednesday for their own safety, and now no one knows what has become of the small mountain town. One of the last residents to leave tells the Republic he saw flames climbing a ridge east of Greer just before he fled. "[The smoke] had come much closer and had turned an ominous color of orange and black," he says.
Dubbed the Wallow Fire, the giant inferno is made possible partly by a brutal drought in the Southwest, explains Ken Frederick of the National Interagency Fire Center. "It's very difficult now because it's so dry," he tells the Times. "Arizona is just bone-dry." But it's also fueled by strong winds ripping through Arizona's mountains and ponderosa forests, making the flames behave erratically and helping spread embers that can spark "spot fires" outside the fire line. With all the dry vegetation around Springerville and Eagar — and with winds still gusting at more than 20 mph — the Wallow Fire is thus poised to keep growing uncontrollably. "If the fire continues to establish itself in fuels in that area, it'll throw bigger embers that'll last longer," says Peter Frenzen, a fire-information officer. "They're looking at the worst-case-scenario, where they're moving through neighborhoods extinguishing spot fires."
There is some hope, however, that firefighters might gain some ground today, CNN reports. Winds are still blowing the flames around, but the National Weather Service is forecasting that they'll dwindle to between 7 mph and 17 mph today, with gusts up to 21 mph north of the fire line. That's "nothing to sneeze at," warns Jim Whittington of the Southwest National Incident Management Team, but it is notably weaker than winds in recent days, often sustained at 20 mph and gusting up to 40 mph. That could give firefighters a much-needed opening, but Whittington adds that this will still be a long, hard battle. "Don't get complacent just because we don't have a red flag warning," he tells CNN. "Ten to 15 mile-an-hour winds are good winds to drive fire, especially through grass. So we're going to have to be very careful."
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is striving to learn from his failed 2008 campaign against John McCain, and as the Washington Post reports, that is ironically turning him into something of a maverick. The main lesson Romney seems to have learned from '08 is that he must avoid seeming like a flip-flopper, since that campaign was dogged by perceptions that he shifted policy positions for electoral convenience. So now the former Massachusetts governor is sticking to his guns, regardless of how that rubs the GOP base — even if it means admitting he believes in global warming.
During a recent town hall meeting in New Hampshire, Romney's first since announcing his 2012 presidential ambitions, he answered a question about climate change unlike most Republican candidates would — although, as the Post notes, he did allow himself some wiggle room. "I don't speak for the scientific community, of course, but I believe the world's getting warmer," he said. "I can't prove that, but I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer. And number two, I believe that humans contribute to that. I don't know how much our contribution is to that, because I know that there have been periods of greater heat and warmth in the past, but I believe we contribute to that." Romney added that "it's important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases," but said he doesn't support cap and trade because it would put U.S. companies at a disadvantage. "We don't call it 'America warming,'" he said. "We call it 'global warming.'"
However lukewarm, Romney's agreement with the scientific consensus has spurred a conservative backlash, the Post reports. After playing a clip of the quote, Rush Limbaugh said "Bye-bye, nomination," while a group of Sarah Palin supporters called him a "simpatico" with President Obama. Yet as a Romney adviser argues, voters will like the candidate's new focus on consistency. "The fact that he doesn't change his position ... that's the upside for us," the adviser says. "He's not going to change his mind on these issues to put his finger in the wind for what scores points with these parts of the party." And according to former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party Katon Dawson, climate change isn't the lightning rod it used to be. "I'm not sure that's a deal-breaker for Mitt Romney," he says. (For more on Romney's environmental record, check out this analysis from MNN political blogger Andrew Schenkel.)
It's easy to hate invasive species in the U.S. — not only do they kill our chestnut trees, clear out our Great Lakes and conquer our Everglades, but they're foreign. Armed with ecological righteousness, the war against invasive species plays on many of the same nativist sentiments that appear in political debates, such as those over illegal immigration or airport security. And while many invasive species really are a menace — Asian carp, emerald ash borers and Burmese pythons (pictured), to name a few — the majority of them are harmless, argues a new essay by 19 ecologists in the journal Nature. Titled "Don't judge species on their origins," the essay tries to elicit sympathy for species that often never meant to become invaders in the first place.
"People like to have an enemy, and vilifying non-native species makes the world very simple," ecologist Mark Davis of Macalester University tells Wired. "The public got sold this nativist paradigm: Native species are the good ones, and non-native species are bad. It's a 20th century concept, like 'wilderness,' that doesn't make sense in the 21st century." Invaders such as zebra mussels and anacondas are certainly problems that must be dealt with, Davis acknowledges, but he says they're the exception rather than the norm. Most invasive species are actually benign, and efforts to indiscriminately wipe out all of them is wasting precious time and resources, the essay's authors write. Invasive tamarisk trees, for example, have been the targets of large-scale eradication programs in the U.S. Southwest for 70 years, but now scientists realize they offer important habitat for native birds. The same goes for exotic species of honeysuckle, which are banned in some states but can reportedly boost avian biodiversity.
"Classifying biota according to their adherence to cultural standards of belonging, citizenship, fair play and morality does not advance our understanding of ecology," the essay asserts. But as Wired points out, not all ecologists see this stance as newsworthy. The perks of certain invasive species are already widely recognized, argues David Pimentel of Cornell University — few ecologists complain about the invasion of corn from Central America, for example. University of Notre Dame ecologist Jessica Gurevitch adds that emphasizing the benefits of invasive species is an unhelpful distraction. "I think [the essay authors] downplay some of the problems and uncertainties," she says. "That we should just get used to it, is not correct."
Facebook has already helped fuel the Arab Spring of 2011 and promote a wave of democracy around the world, and now a team of British researchers aims to see if the sprawling social network can help out humanity on an even larger scale: They want Facebook to spark a recycling revolution. They're starting small, though — five households in the U.K. have signed up for the Newcastle University experiment, which involves installing a "BinCam" in a home's main trash can. The camera photographs every item thrown into the trash, a level of transparency intended to boost awareness of recycling efforts.
"Normally when you throw something away and the lid goes down you forget about it — out of sight out of mind — and that's the end of it," says Anja Thieme, one of the postgraduate students in charge of the project. "But the reality could not be further from the truth. Waste has a massive environmental impact." The BinCam uses a sensor and a camera phone to capture an image each time the garbage can lid is closed, allowing the discarded item to be documented without revealing the person who threw it away. The program isn't based on negative reinforcement via humiliation, Thieme tells the AP, but simply seeks to make people generally more aware of how much recyclable material is needlessly thrown away. Early results are promising, the researchers say, as the participating households have seen their amount of outgoing garbage decrease since the experiment began a few weeks ago.
But much like Facebook's new plan to use facial-recognition software to identify people in photos, the idea has some privacy advocates crying foul. "This sounds like an elaborate joke — except it isn't," says Daniel Hamilton, director of Big Brother Watch, a pro-privacy group. "Encouraging recycling is fine, but publicly humiliating those who choose not to is outrageous." The project can be seen at apps.facebook.com/thebincam.
Father of U.S. Industrial Revolution is born, Shell Oil settles lawsuit over murdered anti-Shell activists, and more.
Want to receive the day's eco-news in your inbox? Click here to sign up for the Daily Briefing newsletter.
Photo (smoky skies near Springerville, Ariz., on June 8): ZUMA Press
Photo (GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney): Win McNamee/Getty Images
Photo (python in South Florida): Uma Sanghvi/Palm Beach Post/ZUMA Press
Photo (Facebook logo): Canadian Press/Steve White/ZUMA Press