How much of the Marshall Fire was a climate change story? The answer is complex. What seems clear is that this fire will strongly influence state policy.
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.
The fire 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 and Superior, 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. Later came a chart from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for Colorado altogether from July through December.
“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, 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 a few days after the fire. “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.
All recognize that climate change is only one part of the story. But did I overstate that part?
This is one of seven big-picture stories from 2021 identified by Big Pivots that involve Colorado.
A scientist affiliated with the National Center for Atmospheric Research who specializes in fire weather and wildland fire modeling and forecasting had an interesting post on Linked-in. Janice Coen wrote that it may be most accurate to say several required factors, none of them necessarily unusual or exceptional, occurred at the same time and place.
“Many of the often-cited “climate change” & fuel accumulation (“100 years of fire suppression”) factors weren’t principal factors here,” she wrote.
Patty Limerick, the Boulder historian, also had a perspective worth remembering. In her Denver Post column, she describes the frequent fires that in the 19th century destroyed towns and cities, sometimes several times.
However, I don’t believe any of this diminishes my essential argument, which is this: With the backdrop of steadily rising temperatures, larger and larger wildfires, more and more smoke, the wildfire that destroyed almost 1,100 homes on the cusp of New Year’s Eve 2021 was a game changer.
In July, I published a major story, Colorado arrives at the dawn of megafires, which looked at wildfire risk from the perspective of the fire chief in Vail (and my own perspective as somebody who lived in mountain towns from the ‘70s into the ‘90s).
The question I think that needs to be asked is about the outsized impacts of small steps in temperature rise.
Looking into 2022
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. Another will propose to elevate building codes. And then there will be a big push using various strategies to improve air quality along the Front Range.
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