Wildfires in Winter Are a Climate Change Event

I’ve lived on the Front Range of Colorado my entire life. I was born and raised here, something few people can say these days, as more and more people are moving to the area. According to the last census, more than 750,000 new people have joined the population of Colorado in the past decade.

Most of these people, seeking cheaper rent or mortgage prices, move into small suburban communities in and around Denver & Boulder — just as my parents did thirty-five years ago when they arrived, looking to start a family, and found themselves unable to afford their desired location of Boulder.

Boulder, for those unaware, maintains strict rules on new development — a controversial policy which has caused home values to skyrocket, but priced many, if not most, people out of the housing market. Even renting here, prices are high and most people live with roommates. Denver is not as restricted, but the housing demand still far outstrips the supply, especially for those with lower incomes.

For decades, developers have been falling over themselves to build new subdivisions and dense apartments in nearby commuter towns like Superior, Louisville, Lafayette, and Erie.

Three days ago, on December 30, 2021, a once-in-100-years type of fire sparked just outside of Boulder. Spurred on by record-setting winds which blew all day long (gusts up to 100 mph were measured), the fire quickly spread through the grasslands outside of Boulder and into the towns of Superior & Louisville, where fueled by the strong and unrelenting winds it consumed several subdivisions. Neighborhoods *just* like the one I grew up in, burnt back to nothing.

A local enthusiast flew a drone over the wreckage the morning after the fire, and the aerial footage is almost incomprehensible.

The Boulder county sheriff estimates that around 1,000 homes were lost. Two people remain missing.

A few hours after that drone video was recorded, eight inches of snow fell on the Front Range. It was the first significant snowfall of the winter.

This was a climate change event.

The Driest Autumn in (My) Memory

I happen to pay particularly close attention to precipitation patterns, as I am an ice climber. Ice climbing, as you might imagine, requires water to feed the frozen icefalls that we crazies enjoy so much. No water = no climbing. The routes simply won’t form.

So around the end of the summer season, I start paying close attention to the amount of rainfall we are receiving — more summer rains means greater ground saturation, which will seep out and form climbs when the weather gets colder.

There were two problems this year:

  1. We did not receive significant precipitation at any point from July until December 31. (data here)
  2. It never got cold.

It is not unusual for it to snow on Halloween in Colorado. I remember a few bitter cold Halloween evenings as a child, trick-or-treating around the suburbs with a ruby-red nose and a ski jacket over my costume. This year — nothing.

I got my first swings of ice season on October 22nd, but if you look at the pictures, it’s easy to see that winter hadn’t arrived. It never did. In fact, if we visit the Colorado State University rainfall tracker, we can see that it had been 155 days since Denver registered more than .25″ of liquid precipitation in a day.

Data screenshot from Colorado Climate Center online tool.

A Wildfire in December

This lack of precip led to the bizarre scene we witnessed on Thursday: a wildfire in winter.

Wildfires have been becoming more common in Colorado, due to, you guessed it, drought-like conditions. In fact, we experienced the two largest wildfires in state history in 2020, with the Cameron Peak Fire and the East Troublesome Fire, both of which burned close to 200,000 acres of forest. But those happened in summer, at the peak of the heat and the dryness.

Of course, if fall and winter precipitation and cold doesn’t come in, things remain dry; ready to ignite. It took just one spark and high winds to turn our somewhat-okay, covid-contaminated holiday season into an absolute nightmare.

Aerial view of the fires burning on Thursday night, captured from a commercial aircraft.

This was a once in 100 years type of event

That makes it the second hundred-year disaster I’ve personally experienced here in Colorado in the last ten years.

That other disaster would be the 2013 floods, a week-long rainfall event which caused approximately $4 billion in damage and destroyed over 2,000 homes. (Climate nerds may, again, check out the Colorado Climate Center page on this event).

You might think, reading this article, that Colorado is a dangerous and unpleasant place to live. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a reason so many people are migrating here, despite the housing squeeze. We get 300 days of sun a year. The people are friendly. We help each other out. We will rebuild from this crisis too, same as we did from the floods.

But I cannot live through these events and see anything other than a growing frequency of intense weather — the exact thing climate scientists have been warning us about for decades.

If this isn’t happening to your community yet, congratulations. I sincerely hope it doesn’t. But it is happening here, and in many other places across the globe.

Not one person woke up on Thursday morning expecting to lose their home, their passion projects, their family photos, or their pets. We were sleepy, over-indulged on holiday treats and leftovers. Casually thinking that hopefully, this next year might be better.

And yet, by eight P.M., when the winds finally started dying down and firefighting crews were finally able to stand against the fire, climate change had taken it all.

Facebook post from a firefighter friend who helped battle the fires. (Personal info redacted)

There will be an investigation. It sounds as if the fire *may* have been caused by humans, not by downed power lines, as originally theorized. If that turns out to be true, we can be assured there will be an outcry. A search for a patsy, a person or group or a place to put our anger. We’ve seen this already recently, with many commenters online still claiming we should “blame China,” or “make China pay” for the novel coronavirus. My friends, community members who have lost everything, will need a place to put their anger.

The reality is, it doesn’t matter where that virus came from or how the fire started. The virus’ victims are still dead; those houses are still gone. Vengeance and retribution: poisonous concepts. They will spread and float downstream. This, too, is a climate change event.

This fire will have long-lasting effects far beyond its point of origin. Already tight in supply and expensive relative to most other markets in the USA, housing here will experience a double shock: lower supply & higher demand. But that’s just economics.

The collective trauma in the community, we cannot describe. We will never be able to quantify it. But after two years of experiencing this virus, I think most of us have some understanding of collective trauma, and the way it rubs on our psyches every single day, like a raw patch of skin rubbing with every step.

These extreme weather events will continue to happen.

Maybe not every year. Maybe, God willing, Colorado won’t see any more major disasters for fifty years. It could happen. There will be another season of strong ice climbing, I am sure. Maybe two, or three. I would like that.

But we need to have the courage to stand up and accept what is happening, and why. The world is changing. It won’t bother me that much if my kids can’t go ice climbing. But they’re going to need to have a home. We all are.

I was very lucky — my apartment was spared. As was my parents’ house. But remember: that wasn’t due to anything I did right, or that others did wrong. The Front Range is dry, but no one would expect a fire to rip through the town in December. If that wind had simply been blowing in a different direction, or if the fire sparked somewhere else, those families wouldn’t have been homeless in the snow for New Year. Just as easy, it could have been me.

Or you.

Let’s try to remember that.

If you would like to make a donation to support victims of the Marshall Fire, you can donate to the Community Foundation of Boulder County, here.


3 thoughts on “Wildfires in Winter Are a Climate Change Event

  1. It is a strange one on those fires as I understand it is winter and you guys freeze there, so it is not a normal weather event.
    In Australia they rabbit on about bushfires and climate change regardless of which climate camp you sit in. Neither argument is compelling or complete.
    I can only call on 56 years of experience and nothing here is really out of pattern that much when reflecting on this from my earliest memories of fires which was the early 1970’s. I went on to be a volunteer firey from 79′ to 94′ which interestingly were the years we had some truly horrific fires here. The 79′ fire was from a lightening strike and the 94′ fires were deliberately lit.
    I remember the tar on the roads bubbling due to the heat and the sky would be tinged red for weeks with the smoke pervading everything. Then the storms would come. It has been this way here with fire for longer than humans have been here.
    I don’t deny climate change. What I question is the arrogance that we can control the climate of a planet. Perhaps our species needs to continue doing some of the positive things we do and eradicate the negative things we do regards the planet and society globally. Reducing the over consumption and instant gratification that has become normal and relearning lessons of the past with frugality would to my mind be a very positive step.

  2. Thank you for writing this eloquent and powerful post, Daniel. I’m also here in Colorado and alternate between severe anxiety and overwhelming rage at those in power.

  3. Excellent, outward view of climate change, worldwide major problems, and inner strength to encourage all to embrace each other vs. slapping on blame. Climate change, along with the pandemic must be fought with a united front.
    In 2021 British Columbia, Canada we encountered despairingly grim climate woes. These ranged from a massive heat dome that killed over 600, many in my city – including an aunt of my children. Fire season hit heavily once again and more recently there was massive disruption of three major mainland highways, plus the only highway on Vancouver Island here I live, during severe rains and flooding that cut off our supply chain, communities, and wiped out farms, homes and lives.
    Yes, it could have easily been a loved one, our families, or us. Repeating myself here, we must work together to care for our planet.

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