Colorado wildfires: Is climate change to blame?

Colorado’s devastating wildfires, which marked what some are calling the worst wildfire season in the history of Colorado, caught the attention of the world in the 2012 summer.

So far, 13 major wildfires have burned more than 225,000 acres, destroying 600 homes, displacing thousands and damaging Colorado’s tourism economy. As with any disaster, many are looking for answers to what caused the wildfires and whether we’ll be seeing more as a result of climate change.

First let’s consider that fire is not an unnatural or inherently bad thing for Colorado forests. This region’s ecology can actually be described as “fire-dependent,” meaning trees like Colorado’s lodgepole pine require regular wildfires for seed dispersal.

But this year, Colorado wildfires were larger than normal due to unusually warm temperatures and extremely dry conditions in Colorado’s forests.

Many do believe this is a result of a warming climate.

We may be seeing more fires with climate change because of drier conditions,  explained Vera Smith, who directs policy and planning for The Wilderness Society’s National Forest Action Center in Denver.

And she is not alone in her prediction. Mother Jones magazine reports how "leading climate scientists Dr. Steven Running of University of Montana and Dr. Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton explained how more frequent and severe wildfires are a predictable by-product of global warming, as higher temperatures leave dried-out forests just a lightning-strike away from uncontrollable blazes."

"This is really a window into what global warming looks like. It looks like heat. It looks like dryness. It looks like this kind of disaster." - Dr. Michael Oppenheimer quoted in Mother Jones.

Why more houses are at risk

While scientific reports on the relationship between climate change and wildfires are somewhat speculative, one thing is certain: the number of homes at risk of fire is increasing because of development.

In the past decade, almost 40% of U.S. homes have been built in the “wildland-urban interface,” or areas where residential neighborhoods border upon forests or grasslands.

Smith’s concern is that some government officials think additional logging will remove forest fuels, when what’s most needed is proper preparation among communities who live in fire areas.

The Wilderness Society leads efforts to counter such proposed logging bills because logging reduces forested habitats and in some cases has been shown to worsen conditions by leading to increasing winds.

“Governments should focus on investing money where we know we can make a difference, namely protecting homes by making them fire-safe and implementing community fire protection plans," Smith said.

Community preparation is the key

Community fire mitigation programs get communities to work together to ensure homes are fire-resistant.

This work is often done as part of a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP), which are voluntary plans agreed upon by community members, local government, local fire protection districts, city emergency services as well as state and national forest services.

Through such wildfire protection plans, communities create “defensible space” on individual properties by clearing trees and vegetation close to homes and thinning out other trees near the property. They are also encouraged to use fire-resistant building materials especially on windows and on roofs, which catch fire due to ember storms preceding the actual flame front.

“If you want to live in the woods, you have to be aware that [fire] might happen,” says John Chapman, who has helped coordinate 16 CWPPs out of the 170 that exist in Colorado.

Is enough being done?

The problem is that there is no state or federal mandate to require community wildfire protection programs, except in the instance of new building projects. Without participation from the entire community, individual homes are only as protected as neighboring ones.

The upshot is that some communities are better prepared for wildfires, while others are left vulnerable.

Reviews often conclude that defensible homes made of new fire resistant material fare better than those that are older and have highly vegetated properties, Chapman said.

For example, Colorado’s Sunshine Canyon participated in a fire plan and largely survived last year’s Four Mile fire while Ute Pass near Colorado Springs also participated and dodged this year’s devastating Waldo Canyon fire.

Community wildfire plans can’t completely prevent wildfire devastation, but some measure of prevention is surely cheaper than the alternative. Consider the damage to Colorado's tourism economy and that at least $60 million has been spent in overtime pay to thousands of firefighters in Colorado this summer. Another $450 million in insurance claims have been made.

It may be too soon to declare whether those Colorado communities that burned this year had made protection plans or mitigation efforts, but those that have surely feel more prepared for what may be the inevitable.