The Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act dominated most of the media cycle this week, but attention is increasingly shifting to the massive wildfires blazing across central Colorado. After over a week of burning, approximately 17,000 acres of timber in and around the Pike National Forest has been destroyed, along with almost 350 homes. At least two people have been killed in the fire, and some 35,000 more have been evacuated from their homes while crews battle to keep the blaze in check. In terms of damage done to private property, the Waldo Canyon Fire is the most destructive in Colorado state history. The previous record? The still-smoldering High Park fire just two hours to the north.
Politicians are beginning to take notice of this year’s catastrophic fire season. During a visit to Colorado this morning, President Obama promised “we're going to continue to make sure that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Forest Service, our military and National Guard and all the resources that we have available at the federal level are brought to bear in fighting this fire.” Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper established a “Fire Relief Fund” which has already secured $600,000 in donations. Elsewhere, officials in Montana and Utah declared states of emergency in response to uncontrollable wildfires.
The proximate crisis is evident, and the response has been impressive. Nationally, over 10,000 firefighting personnel have been deployed this year. And that is to say nothing of the teams of specialists coordinating their efforts. In his most recent weekly address , President Obama praised the “unprecedented coordination between federal, state, and local communities to try to bring this fire under control.”
The ultimate crisis, though, has garnered much less attention. The destructive fires , the intense heat waves , the torrential storms, and the extended droughts should be the equivalent to waking up to a bucket of cold water dumped on your face. Global warming is staring us down, dripping bucket in hand.
Certainly, the fires in Colorado were most immediately the result of lightning strikes or a carelessly tossed cigarette butt. But those lightning strikes and cigarette butts can only spark a massive blaze if the vegetation is dry and the humidity is low, and the ongoing drought coupled with a massive heat wave has produced just such a situation. Of course, even extreme short-term weather events like the drought and the heat wave are rooted in various dynamic atmospheric factors. But as NASA Earth’s Observatory points out, “weather occurs within the broader context of the climate, and there’s a high level of agreement among scientists that global warming has made it more likely that heat waves of this magnitude will occur.” Princeton University's Michael Oppenheimer says it all:
"What we're seeing is a window into what global warming really looks like," said the lead author for the United Nation's climate science panel. "It looks like heat, it looks like fires, it looks like this kind of environmental disaster … This provides vivid images of what we can expect to see more of in the future."
A warmer planet has made it possible for devastating plagues of pine beetles to survive milder winters. The pine beetle swarms girdle trees, leaving forests of dead, dry wood waiting for a flame. A warmer planet has melted mountain snows several weeks earlier than normal in Colorado, thereby ensuring a longer, drier summer more prone to fires. Worst of all, forest fires represent “positive feedback loops” in climate trends. Fires emit vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which warms the planet, and sets up favorable conditions for more fires, more carbon dioxide, and more warming.
If we hope to survive on our climate changed planet, we must accept that the fires we are seeing will increasingly become the new “normal.” In that case, the energy, focus, and coordination that have been devoted to combating fires should be transferred to mitigating the effects of climate change. Let’s show the problem the same attention we are showing its symptoms.