In 2012, that question really is two. What happens under normal climate conditions? And what happens under conditions of climate change?
Scientists are clear: forests have been severely stressed for decades as a consequence of global warming. A major cause of forest decay has been the pine bark beetle, and the reason the beetle has spread is because the West no longer experiences long, super frigid cold spells that kept the insect at bay.
Under normal climate conditions, the forests destroyed by wildfire would gradually regenerate over a period of decades. Under conditions of climate change, what will happen next?
For an answer, look no further to look than to Biscayne and Florida Bays.
These major ecosystems have suffered massive declines in the past thirty years. Not from climate change so much as earlier man-made intervention; the massive reworking of water management and flood control to protect cities and the privileges of billionaire sugar barons who control Congress and the Florida legislature.
What is relevant to the forests is that these ecosystems -- think of them as sea grass meadows comprising hundreds of square miles -- have not recovered. Florida Bay is now a barren landscape, dominated by scavenger species.
Scientists believe that under conditions of global warming and increasing epic wildfires, the conifer forest of the western United States could disappear within a relatively short span of time. What could come back will be grassland or meadows or even high desert. Scavenger species will dominate until biodiversity adapts.