Commentary

Beyond the climate tipping point

Marshall Fire report, tying warming planet to threat of increased deaths, should inspire shift to emergency approach

November 3, 2022 3:45 am

Aboard a Colorado National Guard helicopter, Gov. Jared Polis on Friday, Dec. 31, 2021, gets a flyover tour of Boulder County neighborhoods destroyed by wildfires the previous day. He was accompanied by Brig. Gen. Laura Clellan, Adjutant General of Colorado, and Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle. Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Rep. Joe Neguse also toured the area in a separate helicopter. (Hart Van Denburg/CPR, pool)

A detailed new report on the Marshall Fire from state fire officials comes to a conclusion that’s clear to anyone who acknowledges the reality of climate change, but still it’s chilling to read it in a document produced by a state bureaucracy.

“In the aftermath of the Marshall Fire, one wonders if a tipping point exists that will spur large scale collective action to address well-documented and severe risks to the lives and livelihood of Coloradans,” write the authors of “Marshall Fire Facilitated Learning Analysis,” prepared for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention & Control. “If the Marshall Fire is not that tipping point, it may not exist at all.”

The main focus of the report was the emergency response to the 2021 fire. But while the report touches on first responder communications, inadequate building codes and other aspects of wildfire prevention and response it also frankly cites the root cause of the emergency — a warming planet.

The report reaffirms that, whether Coloradans are prepared to adopt new statewide building standards or avoid residential development in the risky wildland-urban interface, the state is long past due to match large-scale collective action on greenhouse gas emission reductions to the horrific scale of the climate crisis.

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For a lay reader, the report basically says that wildland fire threats in Colorado are unprecedented, they’re getting worse, and climate change is largely to blame.

“Under a warming climate, with urban sprawl and a myriad of land management challenges, it is guaranteed that we will continue to see extreme events at any point in the year that burn large numbers of homes,” the authors write.

The report’s account of the Marshall Fire assaults the reader with staggering statistics.

The fire occurred on Dec. 30, a time of year decidedly unaccustomed to historic wildfires. It grew to 6,080 acres, including large swaths of suburban development. It killed two people and destroyed 1,036 single-family homes, nine multifamily homes, and 11 commercial properties. It forced about 35,000 people to evacuate. It was by far the most destructive wildfire in state history (in second place is the Hayman Fire, which destroyed 600 structures in 2002). As if to drive home how exceptional the fire was in sweeping aside whole neighborhoods in a developed environment, the report compares it to rare urban fires going back 2,000 years, such as in Rome in the year 64 and even the conflagration in Dresden, Germany, during the allied bombing campaign in 1945. The Marshall Fire was propelled relentlessly by strong winds. Gusts of up to 115 mph — category 3 hurricane speed — were recorded.

Those winds were a primary component in propagating the fire. But a key point made by meteorologists at the time of the fire as well as in the new state report is that climate change empowered the wind.

“Without the impacts of drought and multiple other environmental factors that set the stage for the fire to ignite and spread, the wind event would have been a non-factor,” the report says. Elsewhere it elaborates, identifying the kind of wind event that occurred Dec. 30 as a “mountain wave,” which is not uncommon near the mountains in Boulder: “Given the effects of a warming climate on the duration of fire season, the significance of this weather event needs to be understood by the wildland fire community … mountain waves should be viewed as localized, yet potentially severe fire weather events that can result in extreme fire behavior.”

Taken with other increasingly voluminous and reliable evidence that the deadly effects of climate change have arrived and are worse than predicted, the report should inspire Coloradans to rethink the state’s approach to climate threats. 

Not nearly enough progress has occurred in preventing anthropogenic climate change itself, the ultimate culprit in Colorado's worsening wildfire menace.

The latest installment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment warns that the adverse impacts from climate change-related extremes, including increased wildfires, are already affecting “ecosystems, people, settlements, and infrastructure,” and it says ominously that “the extent and magnitude of climate change impacts are larger than estimated in previous assessments.” Some of those impacts are already “irreversible.”

Reacting to the IPCC, Washington Post environment reporter Brady Dennis recently posed a difficult question on NPR’s “Fresh Air” that is relevant in Colorado: “We know that in a lot of places, the flooding is going to happen more and more and the fires are going to happen more and more. And so do we, as a society and as governments — do we choose to not let people develop in these places and to move to these places?”

In February, the U.N. Environment Program released a report that should alarm residents of fire-prone Colorado — extreme wildfires are projected to become steadily more frequent until by the end of the century their number will have increased 50%. The report says governments need to adjust by spending more on prevention and preparedness rather than so much on reactive measures.

“The heating of the planet is turning landscapes into tinderboxes, while more extreme weather means stronger, hotter, drier winds to fan the flames. Too often, our response is tardy, costly, and after the fact,” the report says.

In the last year, more attention and money — including from federal and state sources — has been directed toward fire resilience and prevention. That’s progress.

But not nearly enough progress has occurred in preventing anthropogenic climate change itself, the ultimate culprit in Colorado’s worsening wildfire menace.

A new state progress report on Colorado’s greenhouse gas emission reductions shows the state is not on track to meet its own key goals. The administration of Gov. Jared Polis, while it has scored several notable climate achievements, insists on a “market-driven transition” to renewable energy and prefers voluntary industry action, which invariably results in unacceptable delays in the move to green energy.

The Marshall Fire should be a tipping point. A determined, community-wide emergency shift toward zero-emission policies should ensue. The very survival of our family, friends and communities are at stake, a circumstance that is stated clearly in the Marshall Fire report: “As climate change continues, more area will burn on average, exposing more structures, destroying more communities, and killing more people.”

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