In Colorado, a Cautionary Tale Writ in Flames

Shortly after the Waldo Canyon Fire began west of Colorado Springs on June 22, evacuees—some 32,000 as the threat grew—and commentators began to play the blame game.

Who, or what, started this?

The fire would become the state’s most disastrous financially, with the loss of some 350 homes valued at more than $110 million. Contained the second week of July, it displaced early June’s High Park Fire, just outside Fort Collins, at the top of the list no one wants to top. High Park, in turn, had surpassed 2010’s Fourmile Canyon Fire outside Boulder as the state’s costliest.

In each instance in Colorado, and throughout the West and Southwest, the refrain echoes from the charred hills and scorched grasslands: How did this happen?

Here’s the inconvenient truth: We did it. And experts say we better get used to it—for Westerners in the age of global warming, this is the new normal.

“People can fight all day long about the root causes [of climate change],” says David Ellenberger of the National Wildlife Federation. “But the science is undeniable.” Ellenberger points to a confluence of circumstances igniting the spate of wildfires: a previous, abnormally wet season provided moisture for fire fuel growth and was followed by record dry, hot months (the ski season was a bust, and the heat/drought conditions have flattened crops that dot the eastern flatlands). Meanwhile, bark beetle infestations devastated more than 40 million acres of pines; it simply doesn’t get cold enough to kill the beetles, which have flourished and now “enjoy” two breeding seasons.

Between 2000 and 2010, about 100,000 people moved into Colorado’s “red zones”—areas most prone to fire—reports Burt Hubbard, who mines data from census reports for About one in five Coloradans now live in a high risk fire area.

As part of the broader sprawl phenomenon, red-zone homes also contribute to longer commute times and more carbon emissions dumped into the air. In other words, they feed their own flames.

“There are a number of feedback patterns in the climate change loop,” Ellenberger says. And the results of those patterns are becoming visible to many for the first time. “It’s really been an abstraction for people for a lot of years. Now, I think we’re starting to see it firsthand on a very real, regional level.” Solutions are similarly abstract, but involve money—lots of it. A spokesperson for Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., says potential funding—including the 2012 Farm Bill with $200 million earmarked to battle bark beetles—is wending its way through Congress. Meanwhile, Udall spearheaded a push to provide the Forest Service with more air tankers.

The Forest Service, which spends about half of its budget on fighting fires, is devoting what it can to preventing them through selective thinning. But that won’t roll back the long-term trend.

“The solution is we need to get a handle on climate change,” says Tom Yulsman, a veteran science journalist and co-director of the University of Colorado’s environmental journalism program. “But the reality is we’re going to continue to see [increased wildfires] no matter what we do today.”