Is Climate Change the Ultimate Firestarter?

Turns out, American wildfires can be directly tied to rising global temperatures.

Wildfire Climate Change: Waldo Canyon Fire Colorado Springs

The aftermath of the Waldo Canyon wildfire in the Mountain Shadows subdivision, July 1, 2012, show the effects of climate change. (Photo: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Sal holds a political science degree from the George Washington University. He's written about all things environment since 2007.

Forget the blazing-hot, 65-mile-per-hour winds or the obsidian-black cumulous clouds swirling overhead. Never mind the embers falling like smoldering snowflakes or the neighbors packing their getaway cars. Carla Albers of Colorado Springs, Colorado, had far more important things to worry about on the afternoon of June 26, 2012: the whereabouts of her teenage son, Eric.

The 2,000-degree Waldo Canyon Fire, which would reduce her home and 345 others to heaps of simmering ashes, was still several ridges—and minutes—away. Its flames had not yet encroached on her Mountain Shadows neighborhood.

Finally, just before 5 p.m., Eric arrived home from his summer job—and an impromptu, heroic detour. Half an hour earlier, he and a friend had stopped to save a dog that was holed up at another friend’s house, though they could see the fire rapidly approaching. “It honestly looked like lava was coming down the mountain,” says Eric. “It was apocalyptic.”

“My mom had been calling throughout all of this,” says Eric. “I finally answered, and she said, ‘You have to leave now.’ ” The duo—and the dog—made it back to the Albers home in the nick of time, barely escaping the most destructive firestorm in Colorado history. By nightfall, Eric, Carla, and her husband Mark, a dentist, were setting up the family camper at a friend’s home. There, surrounded by a few boxes of financial records and keepsakes, Carla spent a sleepless night dreading the inevitable.

Official confirmation of total incineration came two days later, when she attended a community meeting for evacuees. “It was just a list by address—and it had on there destroyed or not destroyed,” she explains. “And we were on the wrong side.” She exhales deeply. “It was hard, real hard.”

***

While scientists are generally reluctant to blame climate change for causing any one particular wildfire, some are increasingly certain that manmade global warming ripens the conditions in which longer burning, more frequently occurring, and larger-sized wildfires can grow.

One of these scientists is Dr. Kevin Trenberth, a Distinguished Senior Scientist in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

So did climate change contribute to the Waldo Canyon Fire? “It’s highly likely,” says Trenberth.

“There was record low snow pack in the spring, and so no snow to melt and take up heat, and no moisture from melted snow to take up heat in evaporation,” says Trenberth. “In a drought, the direct effects of global warming accumulate.”

Last year, the U.S. experienced its third worst fire season ever, with 9.2 million acres burned—an area larger than the state of Maryland.

On average, wildfires now burn twice as much total land each year as they did 40 years ago, and the burn season is almost three months longer than in the 1970s. Colorado, in particular, averaged 460 fires per year in the 1960s, which burned 8,000 acres annually, according to Colorado State Forest Service records. But, since 2002, the state has experienced about 2,500 fires a year, burning roughly 100,000 acres.

And, as the century matures, it’s projected to get worse—much worse.

According to a report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in March 2013, U.S. wildfires will be at least twice as destructive by 2050.

In western Colorado—the Albers’ backyard—the destruction will be catastrophic; scientists predict a five-fold increase in acres burned by the mid-century mark.

Yet many Americans outside of the scientific community aren’t convinced, including fire victim Carla Albers. “I’m very skeptical of manmade climate change,” she says. “I think it’s clear that changes go on in the climate. It gets hotter, it gets colder, but I’m just not sure that man impacts it that much.”

There is a “major disconnect” between what the climate science is showing and what the average American is thinking, says Edward Maibach, the Director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.

“If people are shown the way climate change is touching their lives, will it make a difference in the way that they understand the issue? The answer is yes—but not everybody,” says Maibach.

***

According to an in-depth investigation conducted by I-News Network in July 2012, around 1.1 million Coloradans inhabit red zones—areas at a forest’s edge deemed most susceptible to wildfires.

Development in the state has been so rampant that one in four Coloradans now live in a home considered to be a fire risk.

“No, not at all,” says Carla when asked if rebuilding in a red zone—the family officially moved back into Mountain Shadows on May 13—caused her any worry.  “I thought that everything that was going to burn has already burned, so I feel we’re pretty safe for a while.”

Still, the Albers’ decision to rebuild in almost the exact same spot—they bought the adjacent lot—carries risk. Carla chalks much of her experience up to fate.

“Our house burned. The house across the street burned, but the house behind that one went unscathed,” she says. “It was surreal, you had total destruction right next to houses that were still standing.”

To date, 50 percent of the destroyed homes in Mountain Shadows have been rebuilt or are in the process of being rebuilt.

***

“When the winds pick up, as it did on that Tuesday, it gets extremely turbulent and the visibility can get very bad for us,” says Lieutenant Colonel Ryan McCreight, an Air Craft Commander with the Modular Airborne FireFighting System, or MAFFS.

MAFFS is a self-contained aerial firefighting system owned by the U.S. Forest Service—it’s capable of discharging 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in five seconds, usually from the rear hatch of a C-130 Hercules cargo plane. Once the load is released, it can be refilled in less than 12 minutes.

Before the Waldo Canyon Fire was fully contained on July 10—some 17 days after it began—McCreight and his crew flew 13 sorties, dropping 24,930 gallons of retardant on the blaze.

“We’ll do whatever we’re tasked to do to the best of our abilities,” he says, when asked about climate change affecting future wildfires. “And if we’re asked to help more frequently, we’ll do it.”

As grateful as Carla says she is for the unflinching service of MAFFS pilots like McCreight, she nevertheless supports a Colorado plan to supplement the federal government’s fire suppression measures with a state-run aerial firefighting convoy.

Cosponsored by State Senators Steve King, a Republican, and Cheri Jahn, a Democrat, the legislation would establish a Colorado Firefighting Air Corps, at a projected cost of $30 million.

“The potential for another catastrophic wildfire is so great here,” says King. “We have four million acres of dead trees, many of them in our watershed—it could change Colorado for generations to come.”

He believes that the climate changes, but not that man causes it.

“There is a huge difference between manmade climate change and just climate change in general,” King says. “In the big scheme of things, are we just a spec of sand when it comes to our impact on the world? That’s not to say I don’t believe that we need to do everything we can within reason for our environment—everybody wants clean air and clean water.”

“Well, I think it just is a fact,” says Jahn, of climate change enhancing wildfires. “This fire season could be worse than the last. It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse.”

Asked about King’s climate denialism, Jahn says: “Fires don’t know political affiliations, devastation knows no manmade boundaries.”

If Colorado can afford its own fleet, it makes sense to Carla. “I’m not the biggest tax person, but if preventative money can be used in the right way, I would have to say yes.”

This proposal in Colorado—to subsidize with tax dollars what amounts to a climate change mitigation endeavor—is emblematic of the tug-of-war that’s sure to play out in federal and state budget offices in the coming years.

In February, the U.S. Government Accountability Office warned that extreme weather, influenced by climate change, posed a “significant financial risk to the federal government.”

This projection was given credence in May when an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that the federal government dished out $96 billion in 2012 “federal climate disruption costs.”

That equates to $1,100 per taxpayer—which is more than Uncle Sam spent last year on education.

***

A new beginning.

That’s the theme of the concert scheduled to take place in Mountain Shadows on June 26, 2013, the one-year anniversary of the fire.

“The Governor’s been invited, and we expect 5,000 people,” says Bob Cutter, the President of Colorado Springs Together, a nonprofit organization founded in the days after the fire. “It’ll be a remembrance of the people that lost their lives, but also a celebration of the tenacity, the commitment, the fortitude of those who built back.”

People like the Albers family.

That evening, boxed in by hope and scarred hillsides, and listening to the Colorado Philharmonic, Carla says she’ll be reminded of the ultimate reason why she and her husband moved back.

“The people, you simply can’t beat good neighbors,” she says. “We’re all so much closer because of this.”

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