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"I just want it to end." Life on the Colorado wildfire frontlines

Original art for The Phoenix by Laila Arêde. Today’s art signifies Mother Earth’s tears bringing new life.

Welcome to week two of The Phoenix!

Today’s newsletter is an intimate look at what it’s like to live through Colorado’s worst fire season in history, as told by Colorado’s Assistant State Climatologist, Becky Bolinger.

All year long, climate people have heard about record-breaking wildfires in Australia, Siberia, Brazil, and California. The fires burning right now in Colorado have been just as bad.

In August, the Pine Gulch Fire near Grand Junction, Colorado grew to 137,000 acres – briefly becoming the largest fire in state history. This weekend, the Cameron Peak fire, burning in the foothills and mountains above Fort Collins, reached 200,000 acres and rapidly advanced toward the heavily urbanized areas about 60 miles north of Denver. For months now, many of the five million people that live along the Colorado Front Range have been breathing in wildfire smoke and experiencing some of the worst air quality in the world.

And all this is happening wildly out of season. In a more typical year, Colorado should be dealing with snowstorms in late October, not raging wildfires. Right now, the state’s early snowpack is less than half of normal.

I originally intended this interview to be part of a bigger article, but I think Dr. Bolinger’s words here need to speak for themselves. When I called Dr. Bolinger this weekend, it was about 9pm. She was standing outside, at the end of the street in her neighborhood, looking into the burning hillsides. She was speaking in hushed tones, and she knew exactly the short- and long-term consequences of what she was seeing.

Simply put: This was an interview that stopped me in my tracks. The combination of Dr. Bolinger’s position of authority and frank discussion of the human is extremely rare and I wanted to share it with you right away.

I’m breaking up the rest of the reporting I did this weekend on the Colorado fires into a three-part series this week: 1) this interview, 2) what it’s like when a community of scientists experience a shared traumatic event, 3) an analysis of how the current Colorado fires stack up against the past 12,000 years of climate records in the region.

We are in a climate emergency. And this is what it feels like to be at the front lines.

(Content warning: This interview describes experiencing a natural disaster from the perspective of someone who struggles with anxiety. The interview has also been lightly edited and condensed.)

Becky Bolinger, Colorado Assistant State Climatologist

It's hard to really think about anything else today.

I'm on the edge of my neighborhood. It's a pretty good vantage point because there's really no other neighborhoods between ours and the foothills and we're a little bit elevated. I come out here a lot actually to take pictures of sunsets and thunderstorms. The last few days I've taken a lot of pictures of smoke plumes.

Right now, pretty much due west I can see actual flames. It's hard for my eyesight to really discern whether it was just a general glow or flames. But I think that what I'm seeing is actual flames on the mountains due west of north Loveland. My guess is it's actually one of the little spot fires that jumped off of the main fire.

And then if I look to the north, I can see a really strong glow from, I think, the bigger part of the Cameron Peak fire. Then I noticed as I look south, I can see the glow from the new Cal-Wood fire. During the day I've been able to see the smoke plumes and the clouds from the Cameron Peak fire and the new East Troublesome fire and the newest one, the Cal-Wood fire. And at night, now I can see the glowing from the two that are further east. And it's eerie.

It's a very eerie feeling to be able to see something that you know is a wildfire just right there with your own eyes. To be able to just walk out my front door and see it is very disconcerting.

I feel like we're in kind of uncharted territory. I would've never really believed that we would have this level of fire activity in October. So it feels quite unprecedented right now.

We've had days where you have pine needles, dead pine needles all over your driveway. I picked up a dead leaf from an Aspen tree in my front yard one day. And we've had days where your headlights come on like it's the dead of night but it's the middle of the day and it's just from the smoke.

I have some anxiety issues anyway but I did wake up in the middle of the night last night and thought, I could smell smoke. I woke up in the middle of the night and it smelled like campfire in my house. And I started wondering, like, "Oh my gosh, what if the fire has jumped all the ridges and it's speeding across the grasslands towards our neighborhood right now? Will I even know? Or are we going to be in one of those stories like I've seen coming out of California where we're driving our cars through these flames that are jumping by the road and we don't know if we're going to survive?" And it's kind of terrifying.

It’s in my head. If you've ever suffered from anxiety you know this is in your head. You just picture things like, I'm going to grab a cat, I'm going to grab the dog, I'm going to grab a kid and we'll take the truck instead of the car because maybe it'll be safer. It's scary.

I'm an outdoorsy person, I've done a lot of hiking and camping. So where the Cameron Peak fire has gone, it has impacted places that I know and love. For example, my husband, his grandfather and his father have died and they took their ashes, scattered them in the Poudre River and planted trees along the Poudre River.

We haven't been up the Poudre since then but I've already seen on the fire maps that the fire has gone over that area. So, I am pretty sure that those trees will be gone. And so, it hits you at a personal level. But it's a whole nother thing when you start to worry about what happens if it cleared these ridges. And I think we're far enough away. I mean, we're not right up against the foothills, we've got a whole two miles between us and the foothills. But the fact that I can see flames, it does take it to a whole new level.

“It's hard to really think about anything else today.”

- Becky Bolinger

I've been studying the fires all summer as part of my work but it does feel extra close to home, when it's one like this. It is likely that we're going to have longer wildfire seasons. So, while that doesn't guarantee that you're going to have more wildfires, it does increase that opportunity for more to start and spread.

And particularly in our state with drought. Our droughts in recent years have been very temperature driven droughts, not just precipitation driven droughts. There is a very clear warming signal, particularly this year. The drought that we've experienced in the summer has been exacerbated by the temperatures, which is definitely connected to climate change. And the fact that we can go through September and go through October and we still have high temperatures, we’re not getting the snow, means we're having a situation right now where the forested land feels like it's more like late summer and not like the middle of fall.

This is what's going to happen. The past week is off the charts in terms of evaporative demand. All the High Plains and the state of Colorado is experiencing record high evaporative demand for what we would normally expect to see in October. Part of that is driven by drought and part of it, I would think, you can attribute to climate change. It’s what's driving this very active fire behavior that we're seeing across the Front Range this week.

It's been a bad year. It has been a very bad year. And what's been unique about this year is that it didn't start as a low snowpack year. What started this year’s drought was early melts of snowpack and then a very hot and dry summer and then no monsoon moisture. And now we're going into fall and we're still not getting the start of next year's snow pack. And you add all those together and it's just been terrible. It's definitely contributing to these fires.

I feel like these Colorado fires aren't as impactful as the California fires because they're not as big and they're not burning as many people's homes. But they're definitely significant to us.

Here in Fort Collins, this has been something that we've been dealing with since August and it just won't go away. We still have it. And now these new fires are popping up and bringing new plumes of smoke. But really, I just want it to end. I'm not a fan of cold and snow, which is funny because I live in Colorado. I'm not a fan of cold and snow but I know we need a solid snow pack. That's the only thing that's going to help. And so, that's all we want right now.