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Colorado Fires Highlight Climate-Change Risks

June 29, 2012
In May, I traveled to Colorado to learn more about a pine beetle epidemic and other environmental changes linked to climate change. The Coloradoans I met were already braced: lack of snowpack, dry weather, and millions of dead trees had created what many worried were ideal wildfire conditions. Within weeks of my trip, wildfire arrived.
Two major forest fires have hit the front range this month, where high winds make fires fierce and population density make fire particularly worrying. The High Park Fire, near Fort Collins, has consumed 87,284 acres according to the Denver Post, making it the second-largest in Colorado history. Firefighters are still stamping out the blaze almost three weeks after lightning set the hillside on fire. 
Now the state is battling the Waldo Canyon Fire, which could be another record-breaker. The fire has consumed 18,500 acres, incinerated hundreds of Colorado Springs homes, and forced 32,000 people to evacuate, the Denver Post reports. 
"It was looking like the worst movie set you could imagine," Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, told reporters on Tuesday after flying over the Waldo Canyon Fire. "It's like nothing I've seen."  
In the American West, data suggests that wildfires are growing in size and frequency, a development many scientists link to climate change. That doesn't mean there's a one-to-one correlation between the Waldo Canyon fire and rising global temperatures, or that other factors--like decades of fire suppression--didn't help set the stage for a big fire. But climate trends point to earlier snowmelt and rising temperatures, two changes that should heighten fire risk in years to come. 
Other Colorado wildfires this summer include the Last Chance Fire, which roared over rural pastureland east of Denver this week, burning over 45,000 acres. Major wildfires are also burning in Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Wyoming, Montana and Utah, according to the U.S. Forest Service. 
Wildfire hasn't hit Summit County, the high-altitude area I visited in May. "Really the fire season is just getting going here," said Howard Hallman, head of a community group focused on forest health. "We've still got a long way to go. Hopefully we'll get some moisture, but it's been so dry and so hot." Referring to the front range fires, he said, "The same thing if it were to happen up here-- we've got nowhere to run." 
President Obama is in Colorado Springs today to observe the damage. Obama's trip to Colorado--a battleground state he wants to win in November--isn't likely to include any mention of climate change. The politics of addressing climate change are too toxic, and after all, scientists are still studying it. 
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