New Mexico’s biggest fire ever as seen on May 29th from NASA’s Aqua satellite. Photo by: NASA.
To date, around 250,000 acres (101,000 hectares) of the Gila Forest in New Mexico have burned in the state’s largest fire ever recorded. Begun on May 16th due to lightning strikes, the unprecedented fire has likely been made possible by a combination of land-use changes, unflagging drought, and climate change.
While, the steep terrain of the Gila Forest has made the fire difficult, if not impossible, to battle, over a 1,200 firefighters are in region attempting to gain control of the conflagration. Around 10 percent of the fire is contained.
A recent study in The Holocene, which refers to the new geologic period in whereby humans have left their mark on the Earth, has found that the appearance of megafires in the U.S. Southwest is truly abnormal. Looking at tree-ring data and fire-scars the scientists could find no record of such fires going back 1,500 years.
The researchers blame the current rise of the megafires on climate change and the stifling of small fires. Climate change has not only raised temperatures but also contributed to drought in the region. In addition a century of suppressing forest fires, cattle ranching, and forest clearing has resulted in accumulation of dry vegetation and wood, ready to burn. Forest canopies are even at risk of burning in these unprecedented megafires, as opposed to the past where smaller and weaker fires spread through a forest every few decades.
“The fires cleaned up the understory, kept it very open, and made it resilient to climate changes because even if there was a really severe drought, there weren’t the big explosive fires that burn through the canopy because there were no fuels to take it up there,” Christopher I. Roos with Southern Methodist University said ub a oress release. “The trees had adapted to frequent surface fires, and adult trees didn’t die from massive fire events because the fires burned on the surface and not in the canopy.”
New Mexico’s second largest fire on record occurred just last year and burned 156,000 acres (63,000 hectares). Arizona also saw its biggest fire ever in 2011: the Wallow Fire burned 540,000 acres (218,500 hectares). A recent UN Report warned of a rise in megafires worldwide due to climate change and, in the tropics, deforestation.
New Mexico firefighters gather to highlight the connection between megafires in their state and climate change. The photo was taken as apart of ‘Connect the Dots’ day organized by 350.org. It must be noted that this photo was taken a few weeks before the megafire in the Gila National Forest, which is now New Mexico’s worst. Photo courtesy of: 350.org.
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Chart: US suffers record drought
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