Climate change hits home in Colorado with raging wildfires, shrinking water flows and record heat

Climate change hit home in Colorado this week, exacerbating multiple environmental calamities: wildfires burning across 135,423 acres, stream flows shrinking to where state officials urged limits on fishing, drought wilting crops, and record temperatures baking heat-absorbing cities.

This is what scientists, for decades, have been warning would happen.

Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday lamented “the hot and dry conditions” and called smoke impacts from the state’s four major wildfires “profound,” noting “poor air quality often can cause COVID-type symptoms.” He banned campfires and fireworks statewide for a month.

“The hot, dry weather is making fire behavior extreme, and the rapid spread is already taxing our resources to fight fires,” the governor said at an afternoon news conference. “We need to do everything we can to stop fires from starting in the first place.”

Meanwhile, environmental groups have filed lawsuits against Colorado pressing for climate action. State lawmakers last year ordered state officials to create a plan by July 1 for reducing heat-trapping greenhouse gas air pollution by 90% before 2050 in an effort to save future generations — something that hasn’t been done.

Polis “knows we must act to shift to renewable energy by 2040 and do our part on climate,” his deputy press secretary Shelby Wieman said.

A letter sent to Polis this week from 100 climate activists urged greater inclusion of low-income residents in creating a plan to cut greenhouse gas pollution.

But that political flare-up was about the future.

“This is a now problem, not a future problem. We’re seeing systemic change of the climate that manifests itself not just in heat but in fire, in water, in agriculture, and in economics,” said Aspen Ski Company vice president Auden Schendler, a former Basalt town councilman who served until last month — when Polis declined to re-appoint him — on Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission.

“How many times are you not going to be able to drive through Glenwood Canyon?” Schendler asked, referring to the Grizzly Creek fire, which has closed Interstate 70 for more than a week. “And, by the way, after these fires, we are going to have landslide. This is such an obvious clear and present danger. Now is the time to deploy really aggressive climate policy.”

Building resilience has emerged as the challenge.

“We’re going to have to become more resilient to some of these changes — and be prepared for them,” state climatologist Russ Schumacher said.

Heat and drought

Climate scientists emphasized that average temperatures will continue to increase for decades due to humans burning so many fossil fuels — coal, gas and oil — in the past. That means impacts including wildfires, aridity, depleted streams and rivers — with some variability — likely will intensify.

This week, the temperature in Death Valley, California, hit 130 degrees — among the highest temperatures ever recorded worldwide.

Denver’s temperature hit a record 100 degrees Tuesday, and the National Weather Service saw little sign of cooling here and around the West. August was on pace to be the hottest on record in Denver, where temperatures have topped 90 degrees on 58 days this year, approaching the 2012 record of 73. Meteorologists forecasted highs above 94 degrees at least through next Tuesday.

Earlier this month, federal officials designated 100% of Colorado abnormally dry or in drought for the first time in eight years, and the fourth time during the state’s 20-year shift toward greater aridity.

This reflects a climate-driven combination in Colorado of heat and lack of precipitation that is unleashing myriad new strains on ecosystems, Shumacher said from his base at  Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center. “Our big picture is changes to the water cycle, and when things start to change in those systems is puts stress on everything. And wildfires are an outcome,” he said.

“Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a long time,” Shumacher said. “Even if we completely stopped emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, the effects of what happened over the past decades will still be up there. …  It’s going to continue to get warmer. And how that plays out in specific impacts is tough to pin down. Whether it is farmers, ranchers or water managers, long-term planning for change is certainly necessary.”

“So dang hot”

In western Colorado, federal firefighting managers listed high temperatures as a main cause of the four largest wildfires. The “extreme fire behavior” they observed included flames leaping from tree-tops to burn up more trees and embers flying beyond front edges of fire walls as far as 2,500 feet to spark new fires.

Hotter temperatures linked to climate warming have led to bigger and more frequent western wildfires, which burned twice as many acres a year over the past two decades compared with the previous 15 years, according to federal fire data. Climate warming also is leading to earlier melting of mountain winter snowpack and faster drying out of soils.

“In wildfires, a little bit of warming is leading to a lot more burning. I expect us to see much more burning in response to continued increasing temperatures,” University of Colorado fire scientist Jennifer Balch said, recommending better protection for people.

“It boils down to two things. Building better. And burning better. We need to rethink how we put more homes in harm’s way. And we need to let fires burn and use prescribed fires to fight fire.”

At front edges of the lightning-sparked, 87,778-acre Pine Gulch fire on federal land about 10 miles from Fruita, hundreds of firefighters risked heat exhaustion as they struggled for control.

“The heat matters. What it means is the relative humidity stays in the single digits and we’re not getting recoveries overnight. It is just so dang hot,” said Tracy LeClair, spokeswoman for the multiagency team tasked with suppressing that fire, one of the largest in Colorado history.

“When the winds blow, we’re seeing  flames spotting 1,500 to 2,500 feet ahead of the fire front. We’ve definitely had extreme fire behaviors: fire moving quickly, especially in some of the lighter, flashier fuels like grasses and sage brush. Then, when the wind and terrain align, it really pushes the fire and can create almost like a wind tunnel in narrow canyons.”

Risk to fish

Water levels in stream and rivers across the Colorado River Basin decreased rapidly with most snow melted. Federal officials warned that water in the largest reservoirs along the Colorado River — Lake Mead and Lake Powell — will remain barely above trigger-points for additional cuts in California, Nevada and Arizona.

Heat in Colorado hit streams so hard that fish may die. Colorado Parks and Wildlife managers on Monday issued a notice asking anglers in southwestern Colorado to stop fishing before noon “because of the low flows and warm water temperatures” that hurt fish.

Heavily-fished rivers “have deteriorated to critical levels for trout survival,” the notice said, and more fishing in low water where temperatures exceed 71 degrees could worsen the harm. Wildlife officials also suggested that anglers carry thermometers to check river temperatures and not fish in water warmer than 70 degrees.

State officials also closed the Ridgway State Park swimming beach for the summer. A large draw-down of water in the reservoir was necessary to help farmers, ranchers and towns. “Due to the dry conditions,” a notice said, “water must be shipped downstream for agricultural and municipal use.”

In Denver and other Front Range cities, lower-income residents, including hundreds without homes camping along streets, bore the brunt of the heat and haze from wafting wildfire smoke. At a Home Depot store along Colorado Boulevard, portable air-conditioning coolers arrived after selling out in July. Clerk Mason Butler said “there’s definitely a correlation between the climate and people purchasing AC at Home Depot.”

Denver paramedics reported receiving 22 calls since July 1 for residents seeking help for heat exhaustion or heat stokes.

Health impacts of extreme heat range from worsening of diabetes and respiratory ailments to vital organ failure, heat stroke and sometimes death. These hit the elderly, children and people with chronic medical conditions the hardest. Statewide, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment records show that, since 2011, extreme heat sent an average of 451 people a year to doctors seeking medical help.

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