America Is Burning – Is This the New Normal?

B. McPherson

The US fire season has opened with conflagrations in over 100 places. New Mexico is suffering its biggest fire yet. Colorado pine forests have been hit hard. A dry winter combined with high winds, high temperatures, steep slopes and lightning strikes have combined to make for explosive conditions.

The biggest fire currently burning in Colorado is the High Park. It erupted from a lightning strike and spread over 8000 acres in one day. Currently it has charred 60 square miles of forest. The New Mexico fire has spread over 42 square miles as of Monday.

Last year saw massive fires in many parts of the American West. The wildfire in Texas resulted in losses of billions of dollars and damage to thousands of acres of land. With good record keeping, some troubling trends are starting to emerge. The temperature is up, not much, but it is significant. The snow pack is diminishing and melting earlier. With changing weather patterns, more lightning strikes increase the chances of fire. Increased human presence in wooded areas is also a factor in increasing risk.

“A University of Arizona report from 2006 found that large forest fires occurred more frequently in the Western United States since the mid-1980s as spring temperatures increased, snow melted earlier and summers got hotter, and that the fire season has grown.” The Atlantic

Katharine Hayhoe, co author of Climate change and disruptions to global fire activity published in the June edition of Ecosphere, describes how she and her team have attempted to use global data and climate change models to predict the trends of large fires in the future. There is uncertainty about the near future, but the long view shows an increasing number of significant fires in the middle and upper latitudes and a slight decrease in the tropics.

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