Drying high temperatures in the west created such a lethal situation this winter that Colorado officials were on alert seven weeks before the Marshall Firestorm, as several fast-growing grass fires raged in Front Range cities.
They also had air tankers ready.
But flames raging through homes 15 miles northwest of Denver December left firefighters powerless.
And now after the state’s costliest climate-driven inferno, officials and experts oppose the “toughening up” of high plains suburbs, akin to proposed flame-proofing for mountain towns, every step of the way to endure future fires. space may be necessary.
“The suburb was not as vulnerable as we thought,” said University of Colorado fire scientist Jennifer Balch. Marshall Fire showed “we are sitting duck to the consequences of the climate we have to deal with year-round.”
“One problem is climate change, warming. Another is that more homes are built in the line of fire,” Balch said, pointing to the thousands of new homes installed over 25 years between Denver and Boulder. “We need to re-think how we are building in flammable places. And, we are building homes that are flammable.”
For years in Colorado, climate warming has been leading to progressively drier, more flammable conditions and more winter grass fires—as warm air moves more water from land and rivers into the thirstier environment. Temperatures in parts of western Colorado are rising almost twice as fast as the global average. And climate warming will intensify for at least two more decades, scientists say, even if world leaders succeed in significantly reducing fossil fuel consumption.
This winter, Colorado officials measured soil moisture along the Front Range at record low levels after a record hot summer and fall. And he recognized the implications of the extraordinary absence of ice: Dead grass that was normally buried or entangled, standing upright, was able to act as a superconductor for the flames. It would only require ignition, which now happens regularly and approaches Colorado’s population of 6 million.
Rarely was the trend of more winter grass fires inside cities more apparent during the seven weeks before this disaster: the November 14 outbreak in western Colorado Springs forced the evacuation of 22 homes. Four more grass fires broke out on December 12 in Colorado Springs along Interstate 25. On December 23 in Boulder, a grass fire burned six acres along a creek path. On December 27, a 150-acre grass fire near C-470 in southwest Metro Denver forced thousands of residents to flee. The strong wind that normally comes in the form of winter storms from the Rocky Mountains to the plains caused havoc on December 15, bringing down trucks and trees. And the wind engulfed a 145-acre forest west of Boulder near Estes Park on November 16.
“We were paying attention to all these things as they were happening,” state climatologist Russ Schumacher said in a Denver Post interview. “It was very dry, going back to the beginning of summer, and it was so hot here along the front range. And we saw small fires flare up,” Schumacher said.
“Our awareness had increased. But I don’t think any of us thought that what we saw last week was going to happen – fires burning in the neighborhood at such a high speed. You look back and you see that all the ingredients were there. But it’s still hard to wrap your mind around the idea that this is going to happen. ,
In destruction that day, gusts of wind up to 105 mph razed the state’s firefighting air tankers. Flames from burning dry grass began to kill coals, just as forest fires burned houses. And the buildings themselves became a main source of fuel, which intensified house after house fire, destroying 1,084 structures and damaging 149 across 6,026 acres before snow fell and flames spread.
Natural forces released from an out-of-sight climate inevitably overwhelmed firefighters, preventing them from attacking the flames. Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, said all they could do was — heroically — expedite the evacuation of residents to save lives.
“What do you do when you have hurricane-force winds accompanied by fire?”
Morgan has helped enhance Colorado’s “rapid response” capabilities before extinguishing wildfires, including the acquisition of a $24 million Fire Hawk helicopter as part of this year’s total $78 million push. But firefighters typically don’t deploy in winds over 50 mph.
As Colorado’s temperatures rise for at least 20 more years “in a best-case scenario,” Morgan said, “we will see more and more incidents of this type” where “traditional methods of quelling the flames are effective.” are not”.
“It has taken us a while to get into this situation. It will take us a while to get out of this,” Morgan said. “We’ll hear a lot more conversations about ‘mitigation’ through vegetation management. We’ll hear discussions about fire mitigation. It looks like we’re going to hear conversations about building code standards. But do we really? Looking at it from every possible angle? What are we doing about hardening communities? Are people serious about their safety? Are we having serious talks about land use?
The Marshall disaster has brought scientists, climatologists and public safety officials back to their understanding of how climate warming can be at home. Here is an emerging list of lessons he learned:
- The drying out of the Colorado landscape is progressively faster with increasing temperatures. A parched environment can turn meadows into well-watered springs within months.
- Potentially devastating fires can endanger communities anywhere and anytime.
- The difficulty of combating fires caused by large wind gusts in dry conditions meant that first responders could rapidly guide only evacuations. Front range residents should know their own escape routes and be flexible.
- Climate disasters are often mixed with widespread impacts, such as mudslides from scorched slopes following the wildfires that closed Interstate 70 in western Colorado last year. This time, the flames found a major new source of fuel in the densely packed habitat that supercharged the destruction.
- Fires now threaten much wider areas than previously understood. For a decade Colorado public safety officials have designated carefully mapped “Wildland Urban Interface” zones as “high-risk” as developers set up homes and shops next to forests – where nearly half of the state’s Half the residents live. Marshall firestorms raged in home areas widely considered safe.
- Creating more housing along the front range increases the risk of catastrophe.
“We’ve really had to rethink some of the things that are possible with wildfires in Colorado,” Schumacher said. “As development progresses, you have structures to burn that weren’t there a few decades ago — a whole new side of it.”
Federal officials are also revisiting strategies to deal with the fires after the Marshall disaster, which prompted a visit by President Joe Biden on Friday.
“The pace of wildfires during the past two years has been eye-opening for us,” said predictive service meteorologist Nick Nausler at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, where firefighters scramble to quell the flames, which began in 2015. 10 lakh acres per year.
Predicting future potential fire disasters in the West has proven much more difficult than tracking storms that repeatedly affect Gulf Coast states. A major challenge is wind, especially along the Rocky Mountain Front from Montana to New Mexico.
Federal scientists have begun research into whether climate warming could lead to an overall increase in wind pressure – so far inconclusive. It’s complicated because many extreme wind events depend largely on local topography, said Julie Lundquist, a CU atmospheric scientist working with wind experts at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
“Even if climate change only increases the prevalence of dry conditions, without an increase in wind conditions, the risk of fire scenarios similar to last week will increase,” Lundquist said.
In the past, winds reached 137 mph (January 1982) west of Boulder, said Gerald Mehl, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who is conducting a study on climate warming and wind. At 100 mph west of Boulder, the wind “can wreak havoc with fire and cause widespread damage,” Mehl said.
This time, a National Weather Service team in Boulder issued a high wind warning for six hours before the Marshall fire was ignited.
Still, it spelled disaster – the latest in a pattern where rising temperatures coincided with repeated breaking of old norms.
Back in 2012, the Thanksgiving Fern Lake wildfire in Rocky Mountain National Park covered eight inches of snow in 35 minutes for three miles to within a half-mile of Estes Park. “We thought it was an anomaly,” Morgan recalled this week.
But the largest wildfires in the state’s history as of 2020 (Cameroon Peak at 208,663 acres, and East Troubles at 192,560 acres) burned in October. And on Super Bowl Sunday on February 7 last year, two grass fires broke out inside Metro Denver, forcing thousands of homes to evacuate.
The fear and despair of the people near the fire is increasing. Climate activists are pressing government Jared Polis to declare an official “climate emergency.” He gathered more than 200 signatures and planned a “State of the Climate” rally on January 13 before the governor’s “State of the State” presentation.
Meanwhile, the Colorado Fire Commission, tasked with brainstorming strategies by police to address the fire problem, has been meeting four times a year since October 2019. The commission’s 24 voting members – chief of public safety, firefighters, sheriffs, an insurance industry representative, natural resources managers – are discussing possible new measures, including stricter building codes that prohibit the use of non-flammable materials in new home construction. limit construction in fire-prone areas, and increase the use of fixed fire to try to restore species diversity. Differences in the dying forests of the state.
They have not reached a consensus, but are expected to submit recommendations to lawmakers this month.