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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Winter Wildfires in a Changing Climate

Air Date: Week of

Smoke from the Marshall Fire is seen over a highway in Colorado. (Photo: Jack, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Nearly 60 million homes in America are within a mile of a wildfire zone, but most people are unaware of the risks. This risk was brought home in the suburbs of Boulder, Colorado on December 30, 2021 when the Marshall fire torched close to a thousand homes. Residents were shocked and surprised they only had a few minutes to evacuate. Colorado is no stranger to forest fires during summer and early fall but due to a megadrought and hundred mile an hour winds the Marshall fire burned through grasslands and into suburban neighborhoods. Fire expert and Director of Earth Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder Jennifer Balch speaks with Host Steve Curwood about the Marshall fire and how climate change is leading to more fires year-round in many more neighborhoods than before and things residents at risk can do to reduce the danger of losing their homes to wildfires.


CURWOOD: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Nearly 60 million homes in the US sit less than a mile from a wildfire zone, but most people are unaware of the risk until it happens to them or people in their neighborhood. That risk was laid bare in the suburbs of Boulder, Colorado on December 30th when some 30,000 people had just minutes to evacuate as a wildfire ripped through their neighborhoods and torched close to a thousand homes. Fire season in Colorado is typically during the hot dry months of summer and early fall, with blazes most often in the forested wilderness but hundred mile an hour winds drove the Marshall fire in from grass lands. Big fires are increasing in the region, thanks to a megadrought linked to climate change. Fire expert Jennifer Balch lives in Boulder County and directs the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder. Welcome to Living on Earth Jennifer!

BALCH: Thank you for having me.

CURWOOD: Well, first, how are you doing?

BALCH: It's been an exhausting and scary couple of days for us in Boulder and Louisville in Superior. You know I have, I have friends colleagues who lost their homes. And being a fire scientist, it's it's one thing to study it, but it's another thing to be living through it. And this event started just a couple miles from my home. And I know that, you know, it could have been could have been my home, it could have been my neighborhood. We're living with the reality of being in the wildland urban interface, where homes mingle with flammable vegetation, and this is our reality.

CURWOOD: To what extent did you ever think this could happen to you living there in Colorado?

BALCH: You know, I think about it quite a lot given this is the work that I do, and I study fires for a living but it's definitely a risk we're, we're taking on. I think one of the surprises with the fire that happened just in last couple days is that the this wildland urban interface is way bigger than we thought it was. There are a lot of homes at risk and I've done some of that work to show what the extent of risk is. We know that in the last couple of decades, there were a million homes within wildfire boundaries. There were another 59 million that were within a kilometer of those wildfires. And I think we just haven't been acknowledging the high level of risk that we're living with today and that risk is made worse by climate change and that's a big part of the story as well.

CURWOOD: And by the way, what do you mean by wildfire boundary?

BALCH: I mean, the the extent of the perimeter of wildfires. So we looked at essentially all the wildfires that happened over the last two decades and we have maps of them and and their extent, essentially the outer limits of where those fires burned to. And so within those burned areas, there were a million homes that were touched in some way, not necessarily burned to the ground, but we're within the boundary of those areas.

CURWOOD: And did I hear correctly that there may be what fifty-nine, sixty million homes that are very close to such boundaries?

BALCH: That's right. So another, you know, a million were within the perimeter of fires and the burned landscapes but another 59 million, we're not that far away within a kilometer. How did we get here? It's such a good question. You know, Colorado is is a beautiful state but it's also a very flammable state. Because it's a beautiful landscape there's a lot of people who want to live here and we continue to develop into flammable places without really thinking about what risk we're taking on. And I think there's a lot of room for us to do it better, to build better and to build more fire resilient homes and neighborhoods into our flammable but beautiful landscapes.

CURWOOD: So as I understand it, Colorado was abnormally warm this winter. Why is that? And in your view what influence does the climate weather have on the gravity of what happened in the Marshall fire?

BALCH: Yeah, it's a huge factor and fire's a great integrator, you need three ingredients for a wildfire to happen. You need it to be warm, you need fuels to burn and you need an ignition or spark. And leading up to December the end of December when this event started on December 30. We had the warmest June through December period on record for the Front Range going back to the 1960s. So what that did was it essentially made our fuels very dry and crispy and essentially ready to ignite. So it was a huge factor that played into what happened. And the fact that I'm even talking to you and talking about winter wildfires, is somewhat remarkable. And there's only been one other time in my career where I've talked about snow putting out wildfires, that's this year and last year. And so what we're seeing is consistent with a trend in warming that we know is influencing wildfires and making them more frequent and making them bigger. We've seen a two degree Fahrenheit increase across the west over the last century, we know that it takes just a little bit of warming to lead to a lot more burning. We've seen a doubling of the forests that have burned across the West since the 1980s.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you to put on your academic hat for a moment. What's the role of fire in the Earth system overall? I mean, more specifically, how does fire contribute to what's going on with climate warming and and how does this climate warming promote fire?

BALCH: So what fire does is it's essentially fast respiration. It takes all that carbon that's stored in plants and it pumps it back into the atmosphere. Combustion is the reverse equation of photosynthesis, essentially. So what you have happening very quickly is that carbon goes right back into the atmosphere through combustion. So fire itself has an important feedback to the atmosphere and into warming itself if that fire is out of whack with what the historical rate of returns have been and what the historical rate of re-accumulation of that carbon and ecosystems.

CURWOOD: So how fair is it to infer from what you said that with more and more wildfires, it's going to add to more and more climate disruption, more and more climatic warming,

BALCH: It will, particularly if you get vegetation change or transitions to other type of vegetation. So if we go from some forest systems to grassland systems that are more adapted to frequent fire, we're going to see a loss of carbon storage by those trees in those forest systems. And that is definitely a potential and we're seeing some early signs of transitions in that, across the West we have forests that are not recovering or not regenerating because little seedlings, the trees that come in after a fire are not surviving from year to year in the drought conditions that we're experiencing today. Now we had a very, we're in the midst of a very strong drought, despite the fact that we got this snowfall and it's, it's a mega drought, it's essentially more than 20 year period where we've had a lack of moisture contributing to it being very hard for plants to survive, particularly ones that need a little bit more water, like trees.

CURWOOD: Jennifer, I have to ask you about the summer fire season. I mean, what a winter fires mean for the well, historically, the more prominent summer fire seasons that we see in the West?

BALCH: So to me what this means seeing a winter fire means that we have a fire season, that's not a season anymore, it's an all year thing. And you know, that's going to stress out our firefighters our fire suppression teams in our communities knowing that we're gonna have to be aware of how dry it is throughout the year. And for the moisture conditions, we're not out of the deficit, the moisture deficit yet. We had a very good snowfall that followed that windstorm that propelled that fire forward, we got anywhere from five to 10 inches along the front range but usually this area sees about 30 inches of snowfall by this period of time. So I'm hoping we're gonna see more moisture in the next several weeks and months. And if we don't, what that means is we're going to have an early fire season again next summer, which sets us up for more burning and greater risk to communities.

CURWOOD: So what and where are some of the most vulnerable communities in the United States, now to wildfires? You know, which ones are most at risk? And what if anything can be done?

BALCH: I think, importantly we need to figure out who's most vulnerable. There's 13 million socially vulnerable Americans right now living with high wildfire risk. And I would guess that that many of them don't know that they're living with that risk. You know, I think part of what is a lesson from the marshal fire is that the wildland urban interface where homes are at risk is way bigger than we thought it was. And we need to help communities prepare and recover from these types of events. And there are things, there are important factors that play into whether a community is ready, whether it's a low income community, whether it has resources to do the fuel mitigation around neighborhoods and around homes. Age makes a difference, elderly communities who may not be as mobile or have as many resources are also vulnerable and need greater assistance in times of evacuation. We also need to be concerned about those with pre-existing health conditions like asthma that make them vulnerable to smoke and smoke exposures. So there's a lot that we need to be working on and thinking about and helping communities and those whose lungs are in the way and whose homes are in the way we need to better protect people.

CURWOOD:In your view, what could have been done to prevent the Marshall fire there in Boulder County?

BALCH:I think under those wind conditions, that fire was going to be pushed. I think, you know, let's start with where it started. That ignition start is still under investigation and that cause is still under investigation, but I can guarantee you that it was human related. There's no natural lightning at this time of year. So one thing we can do is to try and reduce the accidental ignitions that come from people. The other piece of this that we can tackle is making homes more fire resilient and building better. And then the last thing we can do that is the hardest, but we need to tackle is reducing the amount of greenhouse gases we're pushing into the atmosphere that are warming our planet and contributing to this problem. You know, in that we're all culpable.

CURWOOD: So you're both a scientist and a human who has been right next to this disaster. How do you feel?

BALCH: Yeah, it's hard. It's definitely hard. I have staff and friends and colleagues who've lost homes who are literally sifting through the ashes right now. And it's one thing to study it and it's one thing to face it. And, you know, I think for me talking about a winter wildfire this is, to me this is climate change in my face. And I hope that that message gets across because I think we need to do something about it. And, you know, do wonder, as a fire scientist and I've talked about warming related disasters before, how many do we need before we're proactive and I think the science community and our communities generally need to shift gears to solutions that are going to help us become more climate resilient.

CURWOOD: Jennifer Balch is director of the Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder and a fire scientist. Thanks so much for taking time with us Jennifer and best wishes for a speedy recovery for your community there.

BALCH: Thank you and we're Colorado strong, we're going to build back I just want us to build back smarter.



Rocky Mountain PBS | “The High Winds That Fueled the Marshall Fire Are Not Unusual. Here Is How to Prepare.”

The Washington Post | “More Than 40 Percent of Americans Live in Counties Hit by Climate Disasters In 2021”

CPR News | “Why A Fire Scientist Sees Climate Fingerprints on the Suburban Boulder County Fires”


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