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If there had been grassland fires before, the Marshall Fire immediately caused many to reassess their vulnerabilities


by Allen Best

An aide to former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper several years ago observed to me that Colorado’s statewide elections are won and lost in the suburbs.

That crystallizes why the Marshall Fire was the biggest climate and energy story of 2021 in Colorado—and likely the biggest story altogether, if such distinctions are admittedly arbitrary and subjective. If this was not the first wildfire in Colorado’s suburbs, it was perceived to be.

That it occurred on the next to last day of the year I believe makes it even more significant. As Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg noted in a press conference at the Colorado Capitol on Jan. 10, there is no one separate wildfire season in Colorado any more. The Marshall Fire made it clear that it’s all year long.

It also burned nearly 1,100 homes, the most ever, in what was traditionally– if falsely assumed to be—the safe haven of the suburbs.

Marshall, though, wasn’t  actually the first suburban fire in Colorado. In 2012, the Waldo Canyon Fire on the edge of Colorado Springs burned hundreds of homes and killed two people. We’ve had large, large fires on the Great Plains, too, if far enough from the Front Range to barely notice.

This fire occurred in the deep of winter in suburban Boulder. If it can burn in Louisville, might it also happen in Castle Rock, Parker, and Highlands Ranch? This brings wildfire and climate change home in a new way to where 80% to 90% of Coloradans live.

Several national publications made the same point. “How climate is changing which neighborhoods are vulnerable,” is how Inside Climate News headlined its story. The Wall Street Journal had much the same slant: “The Colorado suburbs of Louisville and Superior at the base of the Rocky Mountains were always thought to be safely removed from the wildfires that often burned in the foothills above.”

I am most mesmerized by the scattergram that Russ Schumacher, the Colorado state climatologist, assembled in the hours of the fire. It showed both temperatures and precipitation from June 1 to Dec. 29. In that convergence of hot and dry, 2021 was exceptional. Other years have been hot, others years dry. But this was both, in the top left-hand corner. It was an outlier, but also notable in the scattergrams for Denver, Fort Collins, and Colorado Springs was how frequently the past 20 years showed up in that quadrant of hot and dry.

This week came more news, about just how extraordinarily warm Colordo was from July through December in Colorado. This chart tells that story. exceedingly well.

“Certainly, climate change is never the only part of the story when it comes to wildfires,” Russ Schumacher told me. “That being said, what we see in these fires and have seen in the last couple of years in Colorado, the changing climate is kind of making us expand our imaginations of what types of destructive wildfires are possible.”

The Marshall Fire expanded imaginations immediately. A friend (and Big Pivots subscriber) Robert Youngberg, who lives in Lakewood, reported being unconcerned about previous small fires in the grasslands where the Great Plains erupt into the Rockies. “At no time during these fires did it occur to us that we might be in personal danger,” he wrote. “That perception has now changed forever.”

Arvada, the city of 125,000 people where I live, similarly spans the space between Denver proper and the space where the flattish lands rise into the foothills. “We are still processing this entire event,” responded Mark Deven, the city manager, when I requested an interview. “It is certainly clear that we will need to reevaluate how to build a more resilient community as we adjust to drier conditions, mid-winter fires and other impacts.” He added Arvada was not ready to offer additional comment.

This fire came 14 months after the East Troublesome Fire, which similarly expanded our imagination of wildfire risk in Colorado. It covered 100,000 acres in late October, a time when snow normally has chilled mountain slopes, then leaped across two miles of tundra to threaten Estes Park. That was a California-type fire.

What will be the repercussions? I think – and I’ve had legislators agree – that this puts even stronger winds into several legislative efforts already conceived. It makes the arguments that much stronger, the need more evident.

One set of bills would advance the concept of microgrids. Microgrids are small, local networks of electricity users with a local source of supply that is usually attached to a centralized national grid but is able to function independently.

The best example may be northwest of Fort Collins, where Poudre Valley Electric has assembled a combination of solar and battery storage near Red Feather Lakes. It doesn’t prevent fires, but it does keep the lights and oxygen concentrators on.

The community was threatened in 2020 by the Cameron Peak Fire. The 2018 Lake Christine Fire has motivated Holy Cross Energy to begin plotting microgrids in the Aspen and Vail areas. And microgrids are also a part of the franchise agreement between Boulder and Xcel Energy.

Other bills take aim at buildings, both in highly vulnerable areas called the wildland-urban interface and in rebuilding areas such as Louisville and Superior, the towns ravaged by the Marshall Fire.

Van in Superior in Marshall Fire

The Marshall Fire left little, if anything, of value in its wake, destroying nearly 1,000 houses and damaging hundreds more, as well as this van in Superior. Photo/Robert Castellino Photography

Colorado does not have the statewide code that the federal government requires for grants. That absence has caused Colorado to forgo $70 million in aid that could have assisted in the effort to confront the elevated risk of wildfire, reports State Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver. “We have to do a better job of reducing that risk,” he says. And if those who build in the riskiest of places may protest, that’s their decision.  He points to the way that insurance spreads risk across broad regions. “Widespread damage spills over into actuarial tables to the whole region.”

Hansen also will propose that Colorado set a new statewide decarbonization goal for 2040. Legislators in 2019 set a goal of 50% decarbonization by 2030 and 90% by 2050. He contends Colorado needs a 2040 goal. “It’s very easy to procrastinate,” he says.

The 20 most damaging wildfires in Colorado have all occurred in the last 20 years, a time also marked by rapidly rising temperatures and, not coincidentally, more frequent drought, part of what some climate scientists call aridification. “I think people increasingly make the connection between these disasters and climate change,” says Hansen.

Rep. Tracey Bernett, D-Longmont, who is sponsoring both building and microgrid bills, says she worries that the sharp images of the Marshall Fire may be dulled by April, when it’s time for legislators to vote. Her district includes Louisville. “My job is to remind them of the devastation in Colorado that will continue to be caused by climate change.”

Early in the Marshall Fire, electrical lines downed by the high winds were believed to be the cause. If that was quickly proven false, I think this fire will result in more undergrounding of electrical lines, despite the great expense. I have read that undergrounding power lines m\ore than triples the cost.

For deeper dives, I suggest:

“There Will Be Fire: Colorado Arrives at the era of megafires,” from July 9, 2021.

Manipulating from the margins: climate change and the Marshall Fire from Dec. 3, 2022


Allen Best
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