This is a guest commentary written by Don Whittemore for the The Denver Post:
As a 22-year veteran of fighting Colorado wildfires, I can say with certainty that fires are now more frequent, more intense and much more dangerous than they were when I started.
I believe climate change is partly responsible, but with the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan — which was released Monday — we likely will have an opportunity to address the underlying conditions that have increased the frequency and intensity of wildfires that have devastated so many communities, like Waldo Canyon, Black Forest, and Four Mile Canyon.
Climate change over the last few years has led to warmer temperatures and more droughts, especially in the Rocky Mountain region. When temperatures increase, fuel regimes change; as we get less moisture, trees and ground cover become more stressed and prone to fire.
During the 1990s, there were an average of three fires a year exceeding 100,000 acres, according to Wildfire Today. Since 2000, 146 fires have burned over 100,000 acres, each more than triple the earlier numbers. These trends are expected to continue: A Forest Service study predicts as much as a 200 percent increase in wildfires by 2050.
Unfortunately, the early rains we experienced this spring won’t save us. They encouraged the growth of flammable undergrowth, only to serve as excellent fire fuel as the summer days heat up and wildfires start igniting around the state.
There are obvious costs to wildfires like the Four Mile Fire: replacing and repairing damaged infrastructure, rebuilding structures, paying insurance claims, rehabilitating forests, addressing business losses and engaging in flood control and mitigation.
But it’s the social and emotional losses that are the worst. Residents lose not just houses, but homes. Colorado’s recreation and tourism industries in particular take big hits, but other local businesses are forced to close down, while others lay off workers.
Science shows there are direct relationships between drought, the number of fires, the severity of those fires, and climate change. By crafting a Colorado-grown implementation strategy under the Clean Power Plan, we can make a difference in the fire danger for future generations of Coloradans by reducing carbon emissions to slow climate change.
Fortunately, Colorado is already working on reducing carbon pollution. Our efforts in the last decade — establishing the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act to reduce power plant pollution, increasing large utilities’ and residential use of clean and renewable energy, decreasing the demand for electric power via the Colorado Energy Efficiency Resource Standard — confirms we are a leader in this area.
Although Front Range residents may be lulled into a false sense of security this year with the recent moisture, be assured the Western U.S. and Alaska are still suffering from record-high temperatures, dry fuels, and an extremely high potential for continued devastating fires. We must be vigilant and know that our actions today will affect the wildfire risks for years to come.
Colorado is well positioned to meet the goals of the Clean Power Plan, and as someone who puts my life on the line every week to fight wildfires, I couldn’t be more grateful.
Don Whittemore and other Colorado firefighters are featured in “Unacceptable Risk,” a new film linking climate change and escalating wildfires.