When the apocalypse is your day job: Colorado's terrifying wildfire season

I spoke with five Colorado-based scientists who have experienced the fires first-hand.

Original art for The Phoenix by Laila Arêde. Today’s art is called “hope at the sunrise”.

Today’s newsletter is the final part of a three-part series on this year’s brutal Colorado wildfire season. You can find part one: an emotional interview with Colorado’s Assistant State Climatologist – and part two: a look at this year’s fire season in 10,000 years of historical climate context.

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Colorado’s fires have been unbelievable – even to the people who know them best

In Colorado, climate change has primed the past few months for extremely adverse fire conditions. As Colorado-based meteorologist Bob Henson reported, none of the state’s warmer autumns have been this dry and none of the drier autumns have been this warm.

The result has been catastrophic. It’s been a thousand years since Colorado has burned like this. Fires have engulfed more of Colorado’s land this year than in any previous five-year period combined. All three of Colorado’s largest fires in history have burned since August. Firefighters are hoping for snowstorms to slow the spread.

These fires are a disaster for public health in Colorado, both for mental health and physical health. Wildfire smoke is far more deadly than the fires themselves, and the long-term health consequences of living in newly smoke-prone regions is still unknown. The psychological consequences of being at constant risk of evacuating at a moment’s notice are incalculable.

In addition to this year’s smoke and fire, Colorado is also home to one of the densest concentrations of atmospheric and climate scientists in the world. For most scientists I spoke with, it’s been a morbid experience to watch something so terrifying up close as it intersects with their life’s work.

Here are some of their stories. Responses have been lightly edited.

“Raining ash and burnt pine needles has sort of become a normal thing.”

- Dakota Smith

Dakota Smith

The one thing we can do in the pandemic is go outside and do that kind of stuff and then you can't do it when there's a fire. It's been like that for months now.

Raining ash and burnt pine needles has sort of become a normal thing. We've had a few days this week like that. It hasn't become life-threatening to us yet. I know for folks who live in some of the canyons, it's been really terrible.

They put some evacuations about eight miles from our house. We actually have some stuff packed. I never thought it would come to that. The air quality is just so awful. I think the only thing that really could threaten us is if there's a spot fire or something that started up closer to us, which actually happened, it looks like this morning.

It definitely has a big impact on the mental health. There's so much to worry about these days and you just add one thing onto it. It's just, yeah, compounding.

If your friend group is meteorologists and the people that live out here, they're all talking about it and sharing their experiences about it. Normally if we were at work, we would all be watching it together. That's sort of a typical thing when there's big weather near a weather hub. But yeah, now it's like the email chains are sort of going off the wall, sharing pictures and sharing experiences.

I'm so glad for the snow. I love snow normally but this time it felt like it was bringing normal life back. It's been refreshingly smokeless since then.

I think one think I have taken from this is the pure agony people face when wildfires burn nearby. It will shape how I view and talk about fire events in the future.

“…suddenly, this fire plume is showing up on the 88D radar, but also, everybody could see it out their window. So, it was like, "Uh, I think we'd better get out there and collect some data on this."

- Karen Kosiba

Karen Kosiba

This is probably the first time, in the last 15 years, that we've deployed in Boulder.

We sort of weren't going to do anything, weren't going to do anything, weren't going to do anything. And then, suddenly, this fire plume is showing up on the radar, but also, everybody could see it out their window. So, it was like, "Uh, I think we'd better get out there and collect some data on this." Because, yeah, that was a pretty fast-developing fire, and close to town.

We deployed on the Cameron Peak fire twice, and then we did this one by Boulder. And then, in between, we've done Hurricane Laura, Hurricane Sally and Hurricane Delta [and Hurricane Zeta]. So, it's kind of been a crazy year for these more extreme weather events that we don't usually get.

Fire can make its own weather. So, really, we’re trying to figure out how to best map that, and how to get that information out to people who could use it for fighting fires.

There's a lot to figure out, there.

“I've studied enough climate science. I studied environmental science in college. I've spent my whole career working on climate change. … it's another thing to see it in front of your eyes.”

- Emma Hutchinson

Emma Hutchinson

At night, you can really see the flames.

I've been talking a lot with my parents and they're very concerned about climate change as well. And we're just marveling, it's mid-October. How is this happening right now? It's super strange. We're just so beyond the end of when fire season would normally be over in this region.

I've studied enough climate science. I studied environmental science in college. I've spent my whole career working on climate change. So for me, it's one thing to see the numbers, be looking at IPCC reports and all the scientific reports that are coming out, and know that this is where we're headed. And it's another thing to see it in front of your eyes.

As a person that spends probably 80% of my time thinking about climate change, it has amazed me just how much it still scares me to see the impacts and to know that this stuff, in some cases, it's happening earlier than scientists thought.

We've seen it all fire season, across the West, certainly in California and Oregon, that got a lot of press coverage. We're really seeing complete examples of how climate makes these things worse.

I hope that people do look back on 2020 and remember, "Wow! That was the year that I really started paying attention because of these insane fires." This is very, very scary for many people.

Something else that has struck me is how powerless and out of control I’ve felt watching the smoke. Of course I understand the science, and I know that we still have some time to turn things around when it comes to the severity of climate change overall. But in the moment, watching the smoke pour over my hometown, I was mesmerized because I knew there was nothing I could do to make that particular fire stop.

This was from my house on 10/16 - I had never seen the Flatirons like this in my life.

“With the fires being on our doorstep and growing explosively, we are all pretty scared. Not just with the current fires, but the fear that this might be the new normal in Colorado.”

- Erin Dougherty

Erin Dougherty

It was just chaos yesterday. I was just running some errands in Boulder. I came out of the store at 1:00 PM to see a billowing, dark smoke plume just rising up. Knowing that there was some downsloping winds and pretty low humidities, I knew that this was not a good thing and it was likely to get worse. It was pretty scary just to see something grow so quickly.

We packed a go-bag just in case things got bad enough, but luckily with the cold front passage that really helped out. But last night was just a whirlwind trying to figure out: OK, what's happening? We went outside to check the smoke. How bad was it? Yeah, it was pretty chaotic and pretty surreal in not a good way, and so pretty jarring to experience that.

As a climate scientist too, it's been pretty concerning to see multiple large fires in Colorado that have not had the sort of wetting rains or even snow that we usually see by this time of year. So yeah, pretty concerning and pretty scary to think maybe we'd have to evacuate.

I had friends saying, "Hey, could I stay with you in Fort Collins because of the Cameron Peak fire?" And then later in the day I had to be like, "Well actually I'm not sure if I am particularly safe."

The tone has really shifted among my meteorologist and climate science friends living in Boulder and Fort Collins. With the fires being on our doorstep and growing explosively, we are all pretty scared. Not just with the current fires, but the fear that this might be the new normal in Colorado.

We all feel pretty helpless to watch the fires grow day after day, especially knowing that climate change projections show a continued warming and drying trend here. It's scary to think that perhaps, we are already experiencing the effects of climate change instead of it being in the distant future.

Being someone who studies climate change, watching the fires burn much of the state is like watching my worst fears, the worst case climate scenario, come to fruition. It’s a feeling of dread and anxiety that doesn’t go away after the fires stop burning, because it feels like all those “future projections” I study are perhaps now the present.

“A lot of people ask, ‘How can you remain optimistic and hopeful?’ And I think we have to be because there is no choice.”

- Merritt Turetsky

Merritt Turetsky

I'll just speak from my experience, kind of living through the night. I mean, it's such a humbling experience. We are a society increasingly living on the wildfire-urban interface. And I think we just have to have great respect for that. And a lot of my neighbors take wildfire really seriously: we have fire mitigation plans. But boy, I think a lot of people are pretty flippant about living out on this interface, and it can catch up with you really quick.

Yesterday, people had 20, 30 minutes to evacuate. So if you don't have a set plan in place, this is not the time to make a plan. You can enact a plan that is in your mind. If you're at the ready, you can respond, but it's not the time to be deciding what to pack.

I'm a scientist, I'm a resident of Boulder, I'm also a mom. And so, striking all three of those evenly was a real challenge for me yesterday. Your brain shuts down.

I was just reviewing our go bags and making sure all of our phone numbers are inside, written down on a piece of paper inside a bag because you have to assume that your technology is going to fail and your phone is going to run out of batteries, and the power company will shut off your power to protect firefighters. You have to be ready for plan A and plan B to fail.

As a fire scientist, I think we're going to look back on 2020 as a pandemic in many ways, but I think that includes the fire season. I think a lot is changing. I think we are living in a period of time where, frankly, we can see the stress cracks running all up and down every aspect of American society.

I am a climate scientist and I'm watching what's going on in the tundra, that's what I study. And a lot of people ask, "How can you remain optimistic and hopeful?" And I think we have to be because there is no choice. We owe it to everyone and to our future generations to basically do whatever we have in our power to basically fill in those stress cracks.

The only silver lining I can find is, the stress cracks are so visible now, they're at the surface. They're so painful to the people we care about in this country, that I hope moving forward, we can directly solve them and address them. But that is our choice. And we have a lot of healing and a lot of repair that we need to do. And that includes inequities caused by wildfire.

There's huge structural inequities in how natural disasters are handled. I actually watched the plume of this fire develop from a tiny little poof to the huge cloud that I know you were seeing in images as well. And at the same time, there was a huge pro-Trump rally happening in downtown Boulder with this huge backdrop of a pyro cloud developing behind them. And to me, it just really struck home that there are people that don't see the connections between the structural inequities in society and how the current administration is breaking down our trust in science.

We can't do it unless we work together.

Fire is not fire is not fire. Good fire is so important to our ecosystems, forests need to burn. But fires jumping several miles of alpine tundra to initiate burning on the other side of the continental divide does not fall into the category of good burning. We need to reconnect with what good burning means for the lands we all live amongst. I guess through this experience, I appreciate and am in awe of fire even more than I was before. But I long for good fire.