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Mother Earth Burning: Climate Change Will Increase Wildfire Frequency, Researchers Say

The wildfires raging in Colorado and New Mexico, while not brought on by climate change, will definitely be exacerbated by it over the next 30 years, researchers say in a new report.
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Wildfires such as those raging in Colorado and New Mexico will be more frequent over the next 30 years thanks to climate change, researchers say in a new report.

As flames consumed hundreds of square miles in the U.S. West and killed a woman in Colorado, scientists said that by 2100 wildfires will increase in frequency throughout most of North America and Europe. The study was published in the journal Ecosphere, put out by the Ecological Society of America. The journal Bioscience weighed in on a different aspect of forest fires, Reuters reported, with a study in the June issue about the efficacy of setting controlled fires as a way of burning off fuel so as to avoid or mitigate the type of conflagration that’s under way, as 19 large fires rage in nine states.

The Ecosphere study was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Science Foundation and the Nature Conservancy, according to a press release from the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. It found that by the end of this century, wildfire frequency will jump in "almost all of North America and most of Europe," the media release said, "primarily because of increasing temperature trends. At the same time, fire activity could actually decrease around equatorial regions, particularly among the tropical rainforests, because of increased rainfall."

"In the long run, we found what most fear—increasing fire activity across large parts of the planet," said Max Moritz, a fire specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension and a lead author on the study, in a statement. "But the speed and extent to which some of these changes may happen is surprising."

He added that the changes will compound existing environmental issues.

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"These abrupt changes in fire patterns not only affect people's livelihoods," Moritz said, "but they also add stress to native plants and animals that are already struggling to adapt to habitat loss."

On the ground, smoke from the fire outside Fort Collins both blanketed Denver 60 miles away and smudged the skies above Cheyenne, Wyoming, according to the Associated Press. Farther south, eyes were on fires in New Mexico's Gila National Forest and near Ruidoso, the latter's flames not too far from the Mescalero Apache Reservation and the tribe's ski resort.

“The director of Ski Apache stated that although there is some damage to the ski area, it will be open this coming winter,” InciWeb said.

The Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire in New Mexico was 51 percent contained as of Wednesday morning, up from 37 percent on Monday and Tuesday, according to InciWeb. It had burned 280,075 acres, or 438 square miles. Hot and dry conditions were forecast for later in the week, with no thunderstorms imminent, InciWeb said.

The worrisome Little Bear Fire near Ruidoso, New Mexico, which was pushing against the border of the Mescalero Apache Reservation, had been 35 percent contained as of 9 a.m. on Wednesday June 13, InciWeb reported. That fire has burned about 37,520 acres. The White Mountain Wilderness inside Lincoln National Forest has been closed down.

So far there have been several fires in Indian country this year, though it still has not reached the level of last year's Wallow Fire in Arizona, the biggest in that state's history with 538,049 acres (841 square miles) burned—although the Whitewater-Baldy dwarfs Colorado's 46,600-acre (73-square-mile) High Park fire and is the biggest wildfire in New Mexico history.