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Colorado Wildfire: Our Scorching Future?

| Tue Jun. 12, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

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. According to University of California-Berkeley fire ecologist Max Moritz, the Colorado fire features "a lot of the characteristics we would expect under climate change," including plentiful, dry fuel as a result of low precipitation.

The changes Hayhoe and Moritz predict don't apply only to fires in the West. Wildfires, until now, have been studied up-close, in specific regions of the world. But this report, which combines 16 climate change models, allows scientists to zoom out. "The spatial extent of the disruption raises our awareness that climate change's effect on fire is not just a regional issue. It's not unique to certain parts of America," Hayhoe said. In particular, the world's grasslands, desert shrublands, and temperate conifer forests (like the one now burning) are likely to see more fires.

Scientists also fear a double whammy: Fires release more CO2, contributing to climate change.

An unrelated study, out yesterday from a team of UC-Berkeley fire ecologists, suggests that as fires become more frequent and severe, controlled burns should be amped up to clear out excess fuel. Thinning out forests with controlled burns has become an increasingly popular tool of forest managers in recent decades, a reversal of the early 20th-century policy of fire suppression.

The take-home message for Mortiz is that we need to be on our toes. "It’s not that fire is good or bad," he says. "It’s that it's changing…humans and plants and animals in these landscapes, we're all going to be shuffling and adapting, and it affects everything that we rely on."

Bob's Coffee Shop ran out of coffee late Monday, after serving up dozens of pots of complementary brew for evacuees still reeling from their narrow escape. Still, Wrobbel said, Westerners are used to getting burned by Mother Nature and coming back stronger for it: "Out West, it's either feast or famine."

Share your photos of the fire with Climate Desk via Twitter, and we'll include them in our slideshow.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that towards the end of the century, mid-to-high latitude areas like North America could experience more than 60 per cent more fires. This figure actually describes the level of agreement between probability models used by scientists in the report.

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