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Colorado Wildfire: Our Scorching Future?

| Tue Jun. 12, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
The High Park fire rages in northern Colorado on Monday.

For the past 30 years, residents of tiny Laporte, Colorado, near the Wyoming border, have gathered inside Bob's Coffee Shop to swap gossip over coffee and Danishes near the dense pine forest of Lory State Park. But since the weekend, Bob's has become a very different kind of social hub: a de facto refugee camp for homeowners fleeing what many here call the worst wildfire in decades.

From a booth just a mile and half from the fireline, Bob's owner Chris McCullough described in a phone interview seeing forest ridges ablaze with arching orange flames, a sky blanketed in thick white smoke, and ash falling like snow. At other tables, locals shared updates about the fire's spread and talked about what they were—and weren't—able to save from their homes, which may—or may not—still be standing.

"It's the fastest-growing, hottest-burning fire I've ever seen," said longtime resident and Bob's patron John Brewer, whose home was evacuated Saturday night. "I don't know how we're going to survive this one."

"It's the fastest-growing, hottest-burning fire I've ever seen," said one longtime resident. "I don't know how we're going to survive this one."

Other evacuated locals agreed. "The whole hillside was erupting as we were looking at it," said Charlie Wrobbel, who was awoken in bed with his wife Saturday night by the sudden flash of 40-foot flames a few hundreds yards from the doorstep; they snatched up pets and what personal items they could carry and drove off. "We were heartbroken, because we didn't know if there would be anything to come home to."

By Monday afternoon, they still didn't. 

The High Park fire, as it's known, had grown to nearly 60 square miles by late Monday, making it, along with a massive fire still raging in New Mexico, one of this year's earliest of the mega-fires that ravage the West every summer. One man is believed dead, according to the local sheriff's office, along with over 100 structures destroyed. The fire was started by lightning, which on Saturday morning ignited a stand of pines that, after an unusually arid winter and spring, were 30 percent drier than normal.

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As presumptive GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney faces criticism for wanting to slash firefighting jobs, the Colorado blaze has reignited debate over a controversial question: Are devastating fires like this one caused by climate change?

"That's always the question people want to ask!" says Texas Tech University climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, laughing. She coauthored a report released today in Ecosphere, the peer-reviewed journal of the Ecological Society of America, that is one of the first studies to look at how climate change impacts wildfires on a global scale.

"The traditional answer is: We can't say anything about just one event," Hayhoe said. With this report, "we can say a little bit more than that now." Hayhoe, along with an international team of scientists, discovered that climate change will disrupt fire patterns across over 80 percent of the globe by the end of the century. "Scientists found compelling agreement in long term models that more fires would occur at mid-to-high latitude areas like North America (shorter term models present more variability)."*

"There's no question that humans have altered the background atmosphere on a global scale," Hayhoe said. "And there's also no question humans have altered the environment on the local and regional level" by living near forests and choosing how to manage them. "Climate change is often the final straw in a lot of those cases."

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