Last Thursday, nearly 1,000 homes in Boulder and Denver were destroyed by a wildfire caused by climate change. Winds gusting up to 110 mph whipped the fire, which came after a year in drought in the western U.S.A. and a unusually warm December. Jennifer Balch, director of Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, tells us that the climate crisis is increasing the severity and extent of wildfire season in Colorado. “We’ve known that there’s a link between climate change and wildfires for over a decade, and it takes just a little bit of warming to lead to a lot more burning,” says Balch.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Yes, in Colorado, the still-smoking remains of homes destroyed by the state’s most devastating wildfires in history are now covered in snow. The fast-spreading and climate-change-fueled wildfires that decimated the Colorado towns of Superior, Louisville, and Boulder on Thursday night were barely noticed by residents. This video was taken by an eyewitness.
EYEWITNESS: We’re across the golf course and a pond. We look out at this. So, as we — I pan to the left here, we see huge fires on the other side of 36 right there, significant fires. Then, there are more fires.
AMY GOODMAN:The source of the wildfire is currently being investigated. Winds gusting up to 110 miles an hour whipped the flames. Paul Bassis, a Louisville resident from Colorado, was almost evicted in the blaze.
PAUL BASSIS:Climate change is now. This is not a future threat that we must deal with some day, but it is now. … People lost all their belongings, their memories that were in those homes, families that were raised there.
AMY GOODMAN:The Marshall Fire destroyed approximately 1,000 homes and businesses. At least two people remain missing and are presumed to be dead. It ends a drought year in the west, as Colorado temperatures between June and Dec were the highest on record. A report by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Drought Task Force, found, without, quote, “stringent” climate mitigation, the region will continue to warm.
We go to Boulder, Colorado to speak with Dr. Jennifer Balch (director of the Earth Lab at University of Colorado Boulder).
We are glad you are here Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, very painful under these circumstances. Can you please explain what happened? You, Matt Ross, one of your scientists, were also in the house that was set on fire.
JENNIFER BALCH: That’s right. Many of my friends and colleagues lost their homes. This has been a disaster. And I’ll go back to basics to try and explain what happened here.
You need three ingredients to light a fire. It must be warm. You also need fuels to burn. Finally, you need a spark or an ignition source. All three were present. As you know, we had the warmest period during our fall/winter on record for the Front Range. This ranges from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins. We also had a lot more grasses than usual due to a very wet spring. So we had a lot grass fuel. Our fuels were extremely dry due to very hot conditions. And we had an ignition source that’s still under investigation.
Two things made this fire a disaster. One, there were many houses in the way. Over the past several decades, thousands of homes were built in the area between Denver and Boulder. We also had extremely high winds. These factors combined gave us the perfect conditions for this type event and this kind of disaster.
Millions of homes in the west U.S. are located in what is known as the wildland-urban intersection, which is where homes and vegetation mix. We found that approximately a million homes had been within wildfire boundaries in the past 20 years, while another 59,000,000 homes were within a kilometer. So we’re living with very high fire risk, and we don’t even know it.
AMY GOODMAN:Can you imagine what happened in Boulder compared to what occurred in Oregon and California? I mean, this isn’t even the largest wildfire in Colorado, but it’s the most destructive in a century.
JENNIFER BALCH: That’s right. And it’s among the most destructive wildfires in U.S. history, as well. It’s not just in Colorado. It is amazing that so many homes were destroyed by the flames.
And comparing to Oregon and California, I think one thing that’s really important to note here is that this is a winter wildfire. This is an oxymoron. There’s only two other — there’s only one other time in my career when I’ve talked about snow putting out wildfires. This, to me, is a very important signal. And we’ve seen this signal across the West. We know that since the 1980s the amount of forests that have burned has doubled, and that’s directly tied to how warm our temperatures are and essentially how dry our fuels have become. We’ve known that there’s a link between climate change and wildfires for over a decade, and it takes just a little bit of warming to lead to a lot more burning. And that’s what we’re seeing. We no longer have a fire-season; we have fires every day.
This wildfire is a small one compared to the fires in California, Oregon that occurred over the past summer. It’s 6,000 acres relative to some of the biggest wildfires we’ve seen in the lower 48. Over the past few years, there was a one-million-acre fire. Although this is a small fire it is still a disaster because of the number of homes that are in the way. And that has to do with our development patterns and how we’re building into flammable landscapes. There’s a lot we can do to change how we build into flammable places.
AMY GOODMAN:What can we do?
JENNIFER BALCH: So, we need to rethink how we’re building. There’s a lot of materials that we can use that are not as flammable. Wood siding, asphalt roofing, and wood decks are all flammable. We have building codes that make us install sprinklers inside homes and inside industrial buildings, but we don’t have the equivalent building codes to protect our homes from wildfires. California is on the leading edge of this, and now other states need to think seriously about how we’re building homes into flammable places. All of Colorado is flammable. Our grasses have a high flammability. Our shrubs are flammable. Our trees are flammable. This is a dry landscape that’s flammable most of the year now. And so we need to rethink how we’re building into these places.
AMY GOODMAN:And the drought. Can you speak about the 20-year-old drought that preceded the wildfire? Denver had the lowest level of precipitation between July and December.
JENNIFER BALCH: Yeah. Moisture is another important factor. So it’s not only temperature increase, it’s also how much moisture we’re getting. And we didn’t get a lick of moisture in this region before this wildfire started. So, the combination of rain or snow and warm temperatures results in really, really dry fuels that become drier over time. Not only that, but plants become stressed out and die, making them less flammable. The fire started in an open space, which was basically a grassland. The entire runway of grass was there for it to travel through before it reached the neighborhoods. That meant that there was an active fire line that was moving towards the homes using very dry fuels.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you say to climate change deniers like, well, Colorado’s own Congressmember Lauren Boebert?
JENNIFER BALCH: It’s frustrating. The science has been known for over a decade that there’s a link between warming and wildfires. It is important to acknowledge this link and move past it to find solutions. You know, we’re essentially sitting ducks to the repercussions of climate change if we don’t acknowledge it. Recognizing it and finding ways to live with more fire in the future is part of the solution. We’re going to build back, but I hope that Colorado builds back smarter, thinking about how we can build more fire-resilient homes and fire-resilient communities moving forward.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. I want you to know how much we appreciate your presence, Dr. Jennifer Balch from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Earth Lab.
That’s it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman. Remember that wearing a face mask is an act love.