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It's been a thousand years since Colorado has burned like this

Colorado's three largest wildfires in history have been in the past three months. Wildfires on this scale are exceedingly rare without a boost from climate change.

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Today’s newsletter is a continuation of a short three-part series on the Colorado wildfires that started with Tuesday’s deeply emotional interview with Becky Bolinger, Colorado’s Assistant State Climatologist.

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Colorado hasn’t seen a fire season this bad in a very, very, very long time.

The three largest fires in Colorado history – the Cameron Peak fire, the East Troublesome fire, and the Pine Gulch fire – have all burned this summer.

This week, the East Troublesome fire actually crossed over the continental divide through Forest Canyon Pass in Rocky Mountain National Park at an elevation of 11,320 feet – something meteorologists were speculating would be an unbelievable feat for any time of the year, let alone late October. The fire burned an area the size of Chicago in a day, at high elevation, at temperatures near freezing.

Decades of drought and beetle infestations worsened by rapidly warming temperatures have led to massive stands of dead forests across western North America – at least 100,000 square miles worth. In Colorado, more acres have burned this year than in any other *five year period* on record, combined. Fires are even slowly advancing through early winter snowstorms – with heavy snows posing new challenges for firefighting crews.

None of this is normal.

Before 2002, Colorado had never recorded a fire larger than 100,000 acres. It now has three burning simultaneously. What’s happening in Colorado isn’t a coincidence, it’s climate change.

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Wildfires a thousand years in the making

Bryan Shuman is a climate scientist at the University of Wyoming. He’s spent most of the summer hunkering down due to smoke from the Mullen fire, another enormous fire about the same size as the East Troublesome fire, that has been burning on both sides of the Wyoming/Colorado state line up to just a few miles from Laramie, Wyoming, where he lives and works. The Mullen fire is still just 85% contained, and in places has continued burning through the snowpack of a major snowstorm over the past few days, creating surreal scenes.

Shuman has devoted his career to studying the long-term fire history of the region he calls home – the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado. What he’s found has terrifying implications for the near future.

“If you look over the historic record, there really is not anything comparable in the last 100 years to what we've just seen now,” says Shuman. In fact, the current surge of fire “really doesn't have much precedent in historic record. And basically from our paleo records, you more or less have to go back 1,000 years to see anything comparable.”

Last week, Shuman was personal witness to the first few hours of yet another fire, the Cal-West fire, when he was traveling to Boulder, Colorado last weekend for his son’s youth soccer game.

Here’s how he describes it:

It was just a beautiful, totally beautiful day down there. And an hour later, I look up and suddenly there's this huge plume of smoke. And a little bit later than that, I'm starting to see flames. I just was astonished to see how rapidly it turned into such a huge deal. I mean, to get all of these giant pyrocumulus clouds just forming right over us. It was unbelievable.

Honestly, the feeling of standing at a soccer field watching a soccer game in the beautiful sunlight, and then looking up the hill and seeing smoke and flames and realizing that I was standing there in the wind that made it hard to have conversations with anybody around us, especially with masks and everything on, my first thought was, "Oh my gosh, this really is a risk to all these Front Range communities." I mean, the wind could really bring this fire right down.

It was so windy. It was unbelievably windy. So I was not totally surprised to look up and just see all of a sudden the fire kind of coming over the hill. But I was shocked to see how quickly it turned. I was amazed.

Shuman and his research team study sedimentary records of charcoal to look at the frequency of fires in the subalpine forest systems in the Rocky Mountains. That involves taking samples of mud in mountain lakes, and then carbon-dating it, to get a better estimate of how much forest systems were burning and how they recovered from big fires.

About 1,000 years ago, Shuman and his team found that much of Northern Colorado burned, as it’s doing now, under temperatures roughly comparable to the present day. They also found that those fires were transformative, and left a permanent mark on fragile high altitude ecosystems.

With this event 1,000 years ago down in Northern Colorado, we saw that more or less created a permanent state change in the forest. After those fires, much of the landscape remained much more open at higher elevations than they had in the past.

Now, Shuman is worried that rapid warming related to climate change is about to have a similarly transformative impact on the forests in Colorado.

It used to snow in September and it basically mostly just rains now. And even in October, you're really starting to see a reduction in that snow-on-the-ground season.

What's really amazing is the amount that this area has warmed. We've also done a bunch of work reconstructing temperatures over the last 12,000 years across the Northern Hemisphere, but then also in this region specifically. And the amount of warming that we've had in the last two to three decades is comparable to the maximum amount of warming that occurred over the last 10,000 years.

In short, Colorado is currently experiencing the worst wildfire conditions in millennia.

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“I don't think I've been an alarmist enough about climate change.”

- Bryan Shuman

Being a climate scientist is one thing, but Shuman is also a father, and doing this work is clearly taking an emotional toll on him. Seeing his paleoclimate findings match up with other scientists’ climate predictions and the view from his backyard is shocking. “It's just awful to watch it really happen,” he told me. “It's just devastating.”

It's one thing to know that conceptually but something else to really see out the back door. The thing I keep saying to people is I don't think I've been an alarmist enough about climate change. If 10 years ago someone said there were going to be all these hurricanes and fires. I'd say, "Yeah, well, it's going to progressively change, but it's not like a big storm that's coming around the corner." And yet here we are really facing things literally that are life threatening coming around the corner. It's crazy.

I don't think even 10 years ago, I would imagine that this is where I'd be at this point in my life. I didn't grow up in the Mountain West, but I went to college in Colorado and then I've lived out here for a long time. I hiked the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico. So I know the Rockies really well. And just the amount of fire that is now on the landscape just is astonishing to me.

I understand the idea of how our systems are going to change. I mean, for my whole career, I've been studying how ecosystems respond to climate change. That's what I focus on. I know that they do and that they change, but how do I translate that to my own day-to-day experience and how do I think about what it does mean? If this is what's happening now, what is this going to mean for the next decade or the decade after that as I get older and watch my kids get older? It's hard to take that knowledge and translate into what it really is going to mean for us personally. And I agree. Right now, these fires out West are so awful. I think these are going to have really profound impacts because these systems are so dry as it is and slow to recover. So it's pretty dramatic. I mean, it's a surreal experience to watch these things happen.

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