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Scientists: excessive fuels likely to increase New Mexico’s climate-driven wildfires

Roz Brown

(New Mexico News Connection) Wildfires continue to burn in New Mexico after destroying at least 150 homes in Ruidoso, killing an older couple in the village last week.

Matt Hurteau, professor of biology at the University of New Mexico, who studies climate-change mitigation and adaptation, said the state has largely escaped massive fires seen the past few years in Colorado and California, but the writing was on the wall. 

"Starting in about the mid-90s, here in the Southwest, climatic conditions shifted," Hurteau explained. "We moved into what's been termed another mega drought, and we're seeing that spread and that's climate change at work."

research paper cowritten by Hurteau on how tree mortality and fuel aridity increase wildfire's potential heat was published last December in Geophysical Research Letters.

The McBride Fire south of Albuquerque and the Hermits Peak Fire in northeast New Mexico are the largest of several fires since the beginning of April.

Similar to neighboring states, less snowpack in New Mexico has reduced the moisture level of forests. Hurteau pointed out the lack of snow combined with drought stress and insect outbreaks have caused large areas of tree mortality.

"These are all things that happen naturally, and then climate change is just multiplying the strength of these effects," Hurteau emphasized. "We've had two years of snow drought and the system is really dry, and it's primed to go."

He argued improved management would allow communities in the West to mitigate risks and restore the right kinds of fire to forest systems.

"We need to think about how we live and build in these wild land/urban interfaces," Hurteau contended. "And what are the steps we can take to change development patterns and building codes to make our communities much more fire-resistant."

Thousands of residents were evacuated, and many are being urged to be mindful of air-quality safety while some communities have been advised to seek alternate sources of drinking water.