IIt was just after sunrise on New Year’s Eve that climate scientist Daniel Swain stopped in front of his home in Boulder County, Colorado. The snow was beginning to fall and a strong acrid smell – “like burning plastic,” Swain said – wafted on the freshly chilled breeze.
A fast-moving wildfire had swept through the area the day before, leaving devastation in its wake. Driven by winds of more than 100 miles per hour, what started as a small bush fire rapidly consumed nearly 1,000 homes in 24 hours.
While relatively small in size, just 6,000 acres, the wildfire was the most destructive in Colorado history, a feat that speaks to the growing danger of what Swain calls the “urban firestorm.” Areas where suburban sprawl meets landscapes prepared by drought and other climatic conditions to burn, known as the forest urban interface (WUI), are growing, posing new threats in places that once they were considered safe from forest fires.
The Colorado fire affected both neighborhoods and business districts, forcing 35,000 people to flee their homes. It set fire to a Target, a Tesla dealership and a Costco shortly after Sunday’s unsuspecting shoppers were evacuated. Two people are still missing.
“The wild urban interface is spread out over a much larger area than many people realize, and it is also dynamic,” Swain said. “Most of the time it is true that these areas are safe from wildfires, but given the conditionally extreme wind and drought conditions, they became part of that interface.”
The fact that the fire also occurred in December, a time that was once considered outside of the fire season, has also raised the alarm. “It was weird that the snow started falling,” Swain said, “and having that smell of the remains of almost 1,000 houses floating in the air.”
The area had had one of its warmest winters. This year, the 30 inches of snow Boulder normally receives in December it did not appear. The region saw only 1.6 inches of precipitation since early August. “That’s natural variability,” atmospheric scientist Matthew Cappucci indicated on Twitter, “but in a warmer world, it’s easy to evaporate more of the little water that falls.” When the fire was lit, the levels of drought in the area were classified as “extreme” by the US Drought Monitor.
It has long been clear that what is considered a “fire season” extends further and covers more months of the year. And while that increases the number of days a fire could start, it also brings conditions in line with winter weather patterns, such as dry wind, that greatly increase the danger. Heavy gusts are not unusual in Colorado, especially in the Boulder area, but with no snow and rain to cushion the hazards, disaster could have occurred.
“Many of these events, from fires to landslides, are just a consequence of extreme events that have been brewing for many months,” said Andrew Hoell, a meteorologist in the physical sciences laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, noting the Combined effect of drought and heat has had on fires. Record low rainfall was intensified by record temperatures. It’s a recipe for disaster, and one that Hoell is familiar with.
“I’m used to talking about extreme events, ”he said. But, based in Boulder, this one came close to home. Her home was saved, but many in her community, colleagues and friends alike, lost their homes. “It always gets you down. But when it comes to your friends, your neighborhood, your community, it’s a completely different ball game. “
Thousands of homeless people are searching the rubble and trying to put the pieces back. Recovery is expected to take years. The cause of this fire is still under investigation. Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle told reporters the downed power lines, which were initially suspected to be the ignition source, have been ruled out.
Most fires are still started by people, intentionally or unintentionally, and with more people living in high-risk areas, the dangers only continue to increase. “What the science is saying is that growth is happening faster at the forest urban interface than anywhere else,” said Carrie Berger, fire program manager for the wildland and natural resource extension fire program at State University. from Oregon. “That’s where people move the fastest.”
One-third of US homes are currently in the WUI and that number will only increase as the march of construction to wilderness continues and as higher temperatures increase burnable land limits. That’s why scientists and disaster experts are pushing for a shift from suppression to preparedness.
“We live in a landscape of fires,” Berger said. “I don’t think there is any place that is safe from forest fires.” He emphasized the need for a community approach to fire safety, complete with home-hardening techniques such as reducing vegetation rubbing against buildings, drawing and coordinating plans, and using fire-resistant building materials.
Climate scientist Daniel Swain echoed his calls. While this disaster struck close to home, he emphasized that the next could happen anywhere. “This is not a problem unique to Boulder County. This is not a problem unique to Colorado. This is not even a unique problem in the western United States, and I think this surprises most people, ”he said.
As temperatures rise and aridification spreads to other landscapes, large fires could erupt from forested areas in the upper Midwest. They could spread across Florida, burn in Georgia, or blacken the New Jersey suburbs as they now do in California and Colorado.
“All of a sudden, you have conditions that really aren’t that different than they would be in the west,” says Swain. “That could make things possible that were simply impossible before.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism