Allen Best: The Marshall Fire, climate change and Colorado’s legislative agenda
Last week’s Marshall Fire was a precedent in one critical way. During what is typically the coldest time of winter, the flames destroyed nearly 1,000 suburban homes. That’s climate change. This will put wind in the sails of several bills being introduced for consideration by the Colorado General Assembly.
Wildfires rarely, if ever, have a single cause. That’s true with the Marshall Fire. High winds along the northern Front Range are not new. They’ve torn off roofs since the mining days 150 years ago. We’ve also had giant prairie fires, but in the lightly populated farm and ranch country near Kansas, not in the suburbs.
We’ve actually had suburban fires before, notably the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012 that destroyed 346 houses on the outskirts of Colorado Springs. The Black Forest Fire the next year destroyed 511 exurban houses near Monument.
Both El Paso County fires occurred in June, not December. The big story here is of the marriage of heat and drought.
Russ Schumacher, the Colorado state climatologist, assembled temperature and precipitation records for June 1 to Dec. 29 — the day before the fire — for Denver, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. If they vary slightly, all show 2021 as far and away the warmest and driest on record. Many of the closest competitors were in the last 20 years.
“Certainly, climate change is never the only part of the story when it comes to wildfires,” said Schumacher. “That being said, what we see in these fires and have seen in the last couple of years in Colorado, the changing climate is kind of making us expand our imaginations of what types of destructive wildfires are possible.”
The Marshall Fire expanded imaginations immediately. One resident of Lakewood, the giant suburb stretching west of Denver, reported being unconcerned about previous small fires in the grasslands where the Great Plains erupt into the Rockies. “At no time during these fires did it occur to us that we might be in personal danger,” the resident wrote in response to my story, “Manipulating from the margins.” “That perception has now changed forever.”
Look for the Marshall Fire to be included in the justification for at least several bills in this year’s legislative session. One set of bills would advance the concept of microgrids. Microgrids are small, local networks of electricity users with a local source of supply that is usually attached to a centralized national grid but is able to function independently.
The best example may be northwest of Fort Collins, where Poudre Valley Electric has assembled a combination of solar and battery storage near Red Feather Lakes. The community was threatened in 2020 by the Cameron Peak Fire. The 2018 Lake Christine Fire has motivated Holy Cross Energy to begin plotting microgrids in the Aspen and Vail areas. And microgrids are also a part of the franchise agreement between Boulder and Xcel Energy.
Other bills take aim at buildings, both in highly vulnerable areas called the wildland-urban interface and in rebuilding areas, such as Louisville and Superior, the towns ravaged by the Marshall Fire.
Colorado does not have the statewide code that the federal government requires for grants. That absence has caused Colorado to forgo $70 million in aid that could have assisted in the effort to confront the elevated risk of wildfire, reports State Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver. “We have to do a better job of reducing that risk,” he said. And if those who build in the riskiest of places may protest that’s their decision, he points to the way that insurance spreads risk across broad regions. “Widespread damage spills over into actuarial tables to the whole region,” he points out.
Hansen also will propose that Colorado set a new statewide decarbonization goal for 2040. Legislators in 2019 set a goal of 50% decarbonization by 2030 and 90% by 2050. He contends Colorado needs a 2040 goal. “It’s very easy to procrastinate,” he said.
The 20 most damaging wildfires have all occurred in the past 20 years, a time also marked by rapidly rising temperatures and, not coincidentally, more frequent drought, part of what some climate scientists call aridification. “I think people increasingly make the connection between these disasters and climate change,” Hansen said.
Rep. Tracey Bernett, D-Longmont, who is sponsoring both building and microgrid bills, said she worries that the sharp images of the Marshall Fire may be dulled by April, when it’s time for legislators to vote. Her district includes Louisville. “My job is to remind them of the devastation in Colorado that will continue to be caused by climate change.”
Editor’s note: My Dec. 23 column about Lake Powell incorrectly attributed comments about long-term planning in the Colorado River Basin. The correct speaker was Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department undersecretary for water and science.
Allen Best publishes Big Pivots, an e-journal that chronicles the energy and water transitions in Colorado and beyond. See more at BigPivots.com.
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