I was on the phone with a friend when I heard the news of the dangerous grass fires in Boulder County and how Colorado’s high-tempo dance with wildfires had come to the suburbs. It was clear pretty early that this was not a chain-clanging warning of Christmas seasons yet to come. This was an end-of-year apocalypse, right here, right now.
If history was a guide, you could say that this fire was in the wrong place — the suburbs — at the wrong time — late December. But recent history tells a different story.
Coincidentally, at just that moment, my friend and I were debating what it might take for Americans to finally act on the various crises we’re facing — on, say, gun violence, on economic inequality, on racial injustice, on the threat to voting rights and on, yes, of course, climate change.
And then came the winds, with gusts up to more than 100 miles an hour. And then the forced citywide evacuations in Louisville and Superior. Then the news that dozens, then hundreds, of houses had been lost in what had quickly become the most destructive fire in Colorado history. Then veteran firefighters saying they’d never — as in never — seen anything like this fire. And then, finally, the realization that “fire season” is an out-of-date construct in our state, sort of like the start of snow season.
As of Friday afternoon, we were told that, miraculously, there had been no reported casualties, but on Saturday, authorities announced there had been a mistake and that, in fact, three people were missing and presumed dead. Maybe not a miracle, but you still had to credit both Boulder County planning and the work of the first responders for the limited loss of life. We feared it could be far worse.
And there was other loss, of course, much loss — as many as 1,000 homes destroyed, whole neighborhoods reduced to rubble. Many of us waited all day to hear from friends and family who lived in the affected areas, hoping they had survived and possibly had a house to return to in the now-single-digit-degree weather. Yes, so much loss.
You can’t begin to understand the Boulder County fire without questioning the role of climate change in the disaster. It’s always the most something these days. The most category 5 hurricanes. Or the highest temperatures or the worst freezes or the most deadly tornadoes or the biggest floods or the largest wildfires. Once-in-a-century events are suddenly annual affairs.
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All the dots are out there to connect. And if we’re finally waking to at least that much — you know, that the earth really is warming and glaciers are breaking apart or even disappearing — we’re waking very, very slowly. As just one example, we still can’t get Sen. Joe Manchin, the coal baron, to sign off on the $1.9 trillion safety-net bill that would dedicate hundreds of millions toward the fight against climate change. Or, for that matter, get a vote from a single Republican senator on the bill. If a Trump-leaning Republican — or Trump himself — wins the presidency in 2024, how long do you think it would take before we withdraw again from the Paris accords?
And yet, in Boulder County, the crisis became an emergency. We’re pretty good at emergencies, when — we’re told by politicians and cable TV news, uh, personalities — that Coloradans can always be counted on to come to the aid of our neighbors in an emergency. It’s true, just as it’s true wherever disasters strike.
But this fire was different. This was not one of those fires where people had built houses at risk near woods and in recognized fire zones. These were the suburbs between Boulder and Denver. This is where most people thought nothing like this could happen, except for those anti-conspiracy, pro-knowledge scientists who had predicted something like it would happen.
Now we know. Californians learned that lesson long ago. When I lived in L.A. in the ‘80s, we lived on a smallish hill where one night the Santa Anna winds were blowing furiously. We were awakened at 3 a.m. when the walls suddenly became white hot. We looked out the window and saw the terrifyingly large flames from a brush fire. We evacuated, but fortunately the fire, which came within about 200 yards of our house, didn’t jump the fire break.
If you do just a little research on Colorado wildfires, you might be stunned by what you learn. I just Googled and hit Wikipedia, where an article informs us that the first one to claim 5,000 acres, once official records were being kept, didn’t happen until 1975. Imagine that. And that eight of the 10 largest fires have come in the past 10 years, that four of the five largest have come since 2018.
You think it’s a coincidence that fires are growing larger and stronger and more deadly and coming later in the year? Here’s a hint: It’s not.
Colorado assistant state climatologist, Dr. Becky Bollinger, tweeted an explanation for the Louisville-Superior fires. It began, she wrote, with the wet and snowy Colorado spring, which may have dampened our summer fire season, but helped produce vegetation/fuel for a late-season fire along the Front Range, where we’ve been suffering through a months-long drought and the snow just wouldn’t come.
Most of the damage Thursday in Louisville and Superior happened in just a few hours, fire racing through unsuspecting neighborhoods, leaving many with only minutes to evacuate from their homes.
And a day later, the snows finally came, a day too late for hundreds of homeowners.
Are we really going to allow it to become too late for the rest of us?
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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