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Colorado 'megafire' highlights rise of longer, bigger, fiercer blazes

As Colorado wildfires come under control, fire officials turn their attention elsewhere, worried that this season's fierce megafires are becoming a 'new normal' in the American West.

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A tanker filled with fire retardant makes a drop on the north end of the fire in Alpine, Utah, Wednesday.

Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune/AP

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The worst has passed in Colorado, which recently faced the most destructive in wildfires in state history, but this is only a pause, according to the National Inter-Agency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho.

Federal agencies in charge of fighting fires are turning their attention to the more northern states of Montana, Idaho, and Nevada in anticipation of new blazes amid a fire season that is highlighting the rise of "megafires" in America. 

A mix of natural and manmade forces are driving an increase in the number of fires that "are burning longer and are more destructive and difficult to manage,” says Don Smurthwaite, an NIFC spokesman.

Climate change has left vast swathes of land tinder-dry, controlled burns to manage undergrowth have been discontinued, and more homes are being built in previously wildland areas. The result: “Over the past ten or 15 years, we have more megafires than in the past,” says Mr. Smurthwaite.

The factors leading to more megafires are unlikely to change unless addressed, leading to a sense of urgency with in the firefighting community.

“We need to act now to change what is happening,” says Richard Ottinger, dean emeritus of Pace University Law School in White Plains, N.Y. and co-founder of its environmental law program. “We should not get used to this.”

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