Here is another video I compiled for the North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center: this one focused on wildfire.
On December 30, 2021, the unthinkable happened. Peaceful suburbs of Denver, Colorado, looking forward to celebrating the start of a New Year, endured an unprecedented evacuation due to a rapidly spreading winter wildfire, called the Marshall Fire. It is the most destructive fire in Colorado history, to date, in terms of cost, numbering in the hundreds of millions, and in losses of structures, with over 1000 homes and businesses destroyed.
Fire is an integral component of numerous terrestrial ecosystems. However, recent record-breaking events, unprecedented losses and escalating suppression costs have raised concerns over a “new normal” of increased fire activity and the onset of an era of megafires. Wildfires are extremely costly, not just in the dollars used to suppress them, which number in the billions, but in the millions of acres of forest that get consumed as well. Annually, wildfires burn more than 7.5 million acres with most of this destruction in the West. This is equivalent in area to the Grand Canyon in Arizona – 6 times over.
New research led by scientists at Colorado State University, the US Geological Survey, and the North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center has found compelling evidence that average fire events in regions of the United States are up to four times the size, triple the frequency, and more widespread in the 2000s than in the previous two decades. The most extreme fires are also larger, more common and more likely to co-occur with other extreme fires.
When it comes to the Marshall Fire, how did it become so destructive in a relatively short timeframe? It was a perfect storm of conditions: an unusually wet spring supported the high growth of grasses in the prairies that cover much of the open space in Boulder County. This provided the tinder. Then, extreme drought conditions (a very warm and dry August to December timeframe) set in. Coupling this with a downslope windstorm that produced gusts exceeding 100 miles per hour, with sustained winds of over 45 mph for 8 hours, led to a rapidly spreading winter wildfire.
Anthropogenic effects, or, the human touch are likely influencing fire patterns across the country not only indirectly through regional drying (like that seen here in the West) but also in a direct manner. During the last two decades, for example, human ignitions caused 84% of all fires in the continental US, representing approximately 40,000 fires per year. By introducing ignitions into dry landscapes, humans have tripled the length of the fire season and expanded the size of fire-prone areas.
The future IS fire. Thus in order to adapt and build resilience to impacts, planners and stakeholders must account for how fire is changing and how it is impacting vulnerable ecosystems and communities. Managing grasslands and making use of prescribed burns are some of the most effective tools we have in dealing with the intensity and spread of fires, by reducing those fuels that would otherwise be available for a wildfire to consume.