Climate Central: New Mexico Wildfire Now a Record-Setting ‘Megafire’

The research of SMU fire anthropologist Christopher I. Roos was covered by the popular Climate Central blog. In a June 2 entry, Climate Central science journalist Andrew Freedman wrote about the record-breaking megafires burning now in New Mexico and referenced new ancient fire research by Roos. The study by Roos found that U.S. megafires in the U.S. Southwest region are unique and exceptional for the past 1,500 years.

Roos and co-author Thomas W. Swetnam, the University of Arizona, constructed and analyzed a statistical model that encompassed 1,500 years of climate and fire patterns to test, in part, whether today’s dry, hot climate alone is causing the megafires that routinely destroy millions of acres of forest.

The researchers found that even when ancient climates varied from each other — one hotter and drier and the other cooler and wetter — the frequencies of year-to-year weather patterns that drive fire activity were similar.

The findings suggest that today’s megafires, at least in the southwestern U.S., are atypical, say Roos and Swetnam. Furthermore, the findings implicate as the cause not only modern climate change, but also human activity over the last century, the researchers said.

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EXCERPT:

By Andrew Freedman
Climate Central

The largest wildfire in New Mexico’s history continues to burn, having already charred an area larger than New York City. Known as the Whitewater-Baldy Fire Complex, the wildfire has become another in a series of “megafires” to torch the American West due to an unprecedented combination of drought conditions, climate change, and alterations in land-management practices. To make matters worse, according to The Guardian newspaper, congressional budget cuts may restrict the federal government’s firefighting efforts during what is widely expected to be a busy wildfire season.

The Whitewater-Baldy Complex is burning in New Mexico’s rugged and mountainous Gila Wilderness, an area with steep terrain that has rendered much of the fire off limits to firefighters. Instead of attacking it from within, firefighters are trying to dig in around it, hoping to slow its spread. [...]

[...] In fact, the recent Southwestern megafires stand out as unusual in the context of the past 1,500 years in that region, according to a recent study. The study found that land-management changes, such as years of fire suppression activities that stifled small fires, thereby priming forests for larger blazes, have combined with climate change to create forests that are altogether different — and which burn differently — from what existed in this area for generations.

“The U.S. would not be experiencing massive large-canopy-killing crown fires today if human activities had not begun to suppress the low-severity surface fires that were so common more than a century ago,” said Christopher I. Roos, an assistant professor in the SMU Department of Anthropology, according to Science Daily.

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