Wildfire May Wipe Out Town: The Face of Climate Change in the Southwest

from Wildlife Promise

The drought-driven wildfires rage on in Colorado.

About a week after Colorado’s most destructive wildfire killed two people and destroyed at least 500 homes, a 29,000-acre – and growing — blaze could wipe out a mountain town in the southwest part of the state. South Fork, a town of roughly 400 people, was evacuated Friday morning.

Wildfires, driven by record heat and drought, are the face of climate change in the Southwest. Photo by Judith Kohler

Wildfires, driven by record heat and drought, are the face of climate change in the Southwest. Photo by Judith Kohler.

Fire officials told The Associated Press that chances of saving the town are “low to moderate.”

Two wildfires have combined in steep terrain that includes beetle-killed trees. The area, like much of Colorado, is  in extreme drought after record-high heat and record-low moisture the last couple years. Large stands of dead trees are spread through the area, the work of tree-killing bugs that have flourished the last several years in the Rockies’ warmer weather. The frigid temperatures that normally would stop the bark-burrowing beetles are more and more scarce.

Face of  climate change

This is the face of climate change in the Southwest. This is the new norm—seemingly endless wildfires that start earlier in the season and burn more intensely. Bighorn sheep and Rio Grande cutthroat trout were in the path of  a  wildfire in the Santa Fe National Forest in northernNew Mexico. More fallout is expected when the monsoons hit and debris and mud from barren mountainsides wash into streams and rivers.

Lynx are among the wildlife in an area threatened by a Colorado wildfire. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service

Lynx are among the wildlife in an area threatened by a Colorado wildfire. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service

South Fork, in the San Juan Mountains, gets its name from its location—the South Fork of the Rio Grande. The area is home to world-class fishing, abundant wildlife, including lynx restored to Colorado through a state-sponsored program.

An analysis in Yale Environment 360 says “megafires” are becoming the new normal in the West and questions whether the region’s forests will survive the changing climate.

As the National Wildlife Federation’s report “Wildlife in a Warming World” made clear, climate change is already transforming the landscape. How long will it  be before we don’t recognize the places we love?

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