Something came out of Colorado last week besides images of the destruction from a rapidly developing wildfire that roared through the area between Denver and Boulder.
The fires consumed upward of 1,000 homes in the suburban subdivisions of the Rockies’ eastern foothills in just a few hours.
Besides the stunning devastation, the wild weather brought important insight, too. Even people who live a thousand miles away should reflect on what occurred — because the significance of the day’s events needs to be a wake-up call for all Americans.
The people who lived through the nightmare give us important context.
Laurie Draper lost the home in Louisville, Colo., a city of 18,000 people, that she and her husband had owned since 1994. It was where they raised their two children.
“We were home, and it was a bright, sunny day, and all of a sudden, it wasn’t bright and sunny anymore,” she told the New York Times. “We could smell fire, and then there was smoke coming through the neighborhood.”
The Drapers managed to escape with a few Persian rugs, their dog and the clothes they were wearing. But the wind was so ferocious it was difficult to open the doors on their car as they prepared to drive for their lives.
By the time Liz Burnham reached her car, the flames were just across the street.
“The smoke became so thick I couldn’t breathe anymore,” she said. “That freaked me out so badly.”
Others had a broader perspective on the devastation that occurred so rapidly in their neighborhoods. Naturally, they were thinking about themselves. But some also were thinking about the world farther away.
Angelica Kalika of Broomfield, Colo., told the Times, “For me, this is a moment of deep reckoning of climate change when there is a wildfire outside my door.”
Laurie Silver had a similar message all of us should digest. “I think it’s indicative of our future,” she told reporters.
“And I don’t know what it’s going to take for people to take it seriously. Maybe, when it directly affects people right where they live.”
These are not just the anguished musings of people whose lives have been disrupted. Theirs is not just more climate-change hang-wringing.
Wildfires are not unknown in Colorado. Typically, they chew through forests and grasslands, areas sparsely inhabited, over the course of weeks before finally being snuffed out by firefighters and rain.
The fires last week materialized and caused their astonishing devastation in minutes, not weeks. Last week, the flames were pushed along by ferocious 100-mph winds.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis told reporters the three largest wildfires in Colorado history hit the state in the summer of 2020. Each of those burned 200,000 acres, mostly in sparsely populated rural areas.
To visualize 600,000 acres, think of Iowa’s Kossuth County, that “double county” on the northern border. That’s close to the acres burned in the 2020 Colorado fires.
But last week’s fires were different, Polis said. “It wasn’t a wildfire in the forest,” he explained. “It was a suburban and urban fire.”
Such weather extremes are not unique to Colorado. We are seeing these intensely powerful storms from coast to coast in one form or another.
And that’s an important takeaway. There have always been storms that appear and briefly cause havoc. But these storms are more frequent and are much more powerful.
Iowa experienced 17 tornadoes on Dec. 15 as part of a record-setting outbreak of 43 storms across the Midwest that day. Four days earlier, tornadoes leveled other parts of the Midwest, killing about 70 people in Kentucky and Tennessee.
The wild weather is showing our vulnerability to weather extremes.
The polar ice caps are melting, putting more water into the oceans. In the United States, coastal communities are realizing they have to confront the headaches and huge expense that comes with rising sea levels. Whether they like it or not, owners of ocean-front properties know the day is coming when the seas will be at their front doors.
In Alaska, entire rural villages are trying to figure out how to cope with the warming soil temperatures that are melting the permafrost — that thick, subsurface layer of soil that has been frozen year around for centuries. Many Alaskan villages are built directly on that ground, without the foundations that are common elsewhere in the United States.
Six years ago, those who deny the existence of climate change brushed aside President Barack Obama’s warnings when he said, “Climate change is no longer some far-off problem. It is happening here. It is happening now. We’re not acting fast enough.”
Those six years have passed with little in the way of meaningful action to slow the effects of change on our climate. With each proposal to help mitigate those adverse effects, political interests rise up in defense of the status quo.
My friend Channing Dutton, a West Des Moines trial lawyer, spends much of his free time worrying about weather extremes that are growing in frequency and potency.
He reminds people of what is at stake — and pulls out photographs of his cute-as-a-button grandchildren, the ones who will have to deal with the climate-change mess because their parents’ and grandparents’ generations dithered, instead of acting.