Newest Victims of Climate Change: Notes From a Wildfire Refugee
Photo Credit: Peter J. Wilson/ Shutterstock.com
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The sheriff’s call came at 3:30 a.m.: Leave immediately. Luckily, my wife, SueEllen, and I were already up, grabbing passports, photos, dog food, wall hangings from Thailand and Zanzibar. A neighbor had called earlier, warning us that flames were coming fast out of the western foothills, driven by searing winds that transformed our backyard windmill blades into a silver blur.
I’d gone to bed knowing that a wildfire was crackling in the high country beyond our beautiful valley near Fort Collins, Colo., and threatened the mountain school where kids sometimes rode horses to class. Still, that school was seven miles away from us, as the sparks fly.
But those sparks were flying like mad, making the fire bound forward a quarter-mile at a time. As we drove off, the foothills seemed to be full of erupting volcanoes –– volcanoes on the move.
At least we’d had enough time to gather our wits and valuables, unlike my friend, Gary, who lives up the Poudre River canyon. A 100-foot-high wall of flame exploding over a ridge forced him to flee with just one of his four elusive cats. Another neighbor escaped with just her dog and a sewing machine.
And so it went that night -- and so it still goes two weeks later -- for thousands of our northern Colorado neighbors. More than 200 families’ houses have been burned to ash, and at least one woman has lost her life.
So far, our place and the homes of Gary and his sewing machine-toting neighbor have been spared. For this, we can thank nature’s whims and the incredible work of firefighters who managed to beat back the blaze just 300 yards from our property. But whether we’ve been touched by luck, tragedy or something in between, all of us evacuees now share something. Suddenly we talk openly about being victims of climate change.
Victims, it’s true, with unbelievably greater resources and therefore far better recovery chances than, say, the poverty-smashed lowlanders of Bangladesh, who present the usual face of today’s climate-change refugees. But we are victims just the same – perhaps among the first of many all over the United States in the coming years. Understand: I’m not arguing that climate change directly caused the High Park fire. Lightning sparked it, as it has sparked fires for millennia.
Nor am I saying that the increase of greenhouse gases directly caused the awful drought that plagues so much of the West. A neighbor’s rain gauge shows that our valley has gotten less than 3 inches of rain so far this year, compared to last year at this time, when more than 11 inches of rain had fallen. Single-digit humidity and the 97-degree temperatures on the day the fire exploded helped make it as bad as it was, though they didn’t cause it. Factors like forest management may also play a part, pending further study.
But I am saying that the weeks and months and years of this kind of freakishly hot and dry weather eventually add up to something that feels like more than just an unfortunate trend. Hotter and drier weather means more intense fires, whatever the immediate cause.
I’m not a climate scientist. But I work with a number of them to help communicate their findings to the public, and their fact-based arguments keep piling higher and higher, with almost no countervailing evidence. One 2008 study from Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that the average worldwide temperature from 2003-2007 was one degree Fahrenheit higher than the 20th century average. In the 11 Western U.S. states, that difference was 1.7 degrees.