IIt was just after sunrise on New Years Eve when climatologist Daniel Swain pulled up outside his home in Boulder County, Colorado. The snow was starting to fall and a strong pungent smell – “like burnt plastic,” Swain said – hung in the freshly chilled breeze.
A rapid forest fire had ravaged the region the day before, wreaking havoc in its wake. Pushed by winds of over 100 mph, what started out as a small bushfire quickly consumed nearly 1,000 homes within 24 hours.
Although relatively small – 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 drought-initiated landscapes and other scorching climatic conditions – known as the Wild Urban Interface (WUI) – are growing, posing new threats in places once thought to be safe from forest fires.
The Colorado Fire engulfed neighborhoods and business districts, forcing 35,000 people to flee their homes. He torched a Target, a Tesla dealership, and a Costco, shortly after the unsuspecting Sunday shoppers were evacuated. Two people are still missing.
âThe wild urban interface spans a much larger area than a lot of people realize – and it’s vibrant, too,â Swain said. “Most of the time it is true that these areas are immune to forest fires, but given the extreme wind conditions and extreme drought, they have become part of this interface.”
The fact that the fire also occurred in December, a time once considered well outside the fire season, also raised alarm bells. “It was weird to see the snow start to fall,” said Swain, “and to have that scent of the remains of almost 1,000 houses floating in the air.”
The region had experienced one of its warmest winters. This year the 30 inches of snow in Boulder usually gets in December did not appear. The region has seen just 1.6 inches of precipitation since the start of August. “It’s natural variability,” atmospheric scientist Matthew Cappucci Noted on Twitter, “But in a warmer world, it is easy to make the little water that falls evaporate more.” When the fire broke out, drought levels in the region were classified as “extreme” by the US Drought Monitor.
It has long been clear that what is considered “fire season” spans more time, covering more months of the year. And, while this increases the number of days a fire could start, it also brings conditions consistent with winter weather conditions – like dry wind – that dramatically increase the danger. Strong gusts are not unusual in Colorado, especially in the Boulder area, but without snow or rain to mitigate the risk, disaster may have struck.
âMany of these events – from fires to mudslides – are just the consequence of extreme events that have been brewing for several months,â said Andrew Hoell, a meteorologist in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s physical science laboratory, noting the cumulative effect of drought and heat. had fires. Record precipitation was intensified by record temperatures. It’s a recipe for disaster, and one that Hoell knows well.
“I’m used to talking about extreme events, âhe said. But, based in Boulder, this one struck near his home. Her home was spared, but many members of her community, colleagues and friends, lost their homes. âIt always gets you down. But when it comes to your friends, your neighborhood, your community, it’s a whole different ball game.
Thousands of homeless people are digging through the rubble and trying to put the pieces back in place. Recovery should 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 source of the ignition, have been ruled out.
Most fires are always started by people, intentionally or not, and with more and more people living in high-risk areas the dangers only intensify. “What the science has said is that growth is happening faster in the wilderness urban interface than anywhere else,” said Carrie Berger, fire program manager of the Forest and Resource Extension Program. natural at Oregon State University. âThis is where people move the fastest.
One-third of American homes are currently in the WUI and that number will only increase as construction continues in nature and higher temperatures increase the limits of burnable land. That’s why scientists and disaster experts are pushing for a shift from suppression to preparedness.
âWe live in a landscape of fire,â said Berger. “I don’t think there is a place that is safe from forest fires.” She stressed the need for a community approach to fire safety, complemented by home hardening techniques such as reducing vegetation that borders buildings, developing and coordinating plans and using building materials. fire resistant.
Climate scientist Daniel Swain echoed his calls. As this disaster struck near his home, he stressed that the next could happen anywhere. âThis is not a problem unique to Boulder County. This is not a problem unique to Colorado. It’s not even a problem unique to the American West – and I think it surprises most people, âhe said.
As temperatures rise and aridification spreads to other landscapes, large fires could break out in forested areas of the upper Midwest. They could spread across Florida, burn down in Georgia, or blacken the New Jersey suburbs like they currently do in California and Colorado.
âAll of a sudden you have conditions that are really not that different from what they would be in the west,â says Swain. âIt could make things possible that were just not possible before. “