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Lessons From Colorado's Wildfire

Colorado's Marshall Fire was one of the most destructive wildfires in the region's recent memory. Learning how to provide relief for those affected by natural disasters is essential; preventing climate change from creating more of these catastrophes is critical.

 

On December 30, 2021, in a suburban idyll just east of Boulder, Colorado, residents are enjoying the holiday season. Trees are still adorned with Christmas lights, and a new year is on the horizon. My family is returning from vacation, driving down the mountain canyons.


High winds swung the car back and forth on the drive home. I was unconcerned, even as I looked up to see a cloud looming orange and gray above my neighborhood. Panic did not set in until I was home, watching the news, as the TV commanded us to evacuate. My family packed photo albums, toothpaste and a distressed cat into our minivan—a high-stakes game of “what would you take with you if you were stranded on a desert island?”


That day, the Marshall Fire destroyed 1,084 homes in Superior and Louisville, Colorado. An ongoing investigation has reported one casualty—69 year-old Robert Sharpe. Superior and Louisville are suburbs of Boulder—quiet, popular among families with school-aged children, and set against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. The risk of wildfire is generally low for this area. While fires are common in Colorado, they rarely touch such densely-populated communities like these. These neighborhoods are close knit: ours hosts annual block parties in the summer and ornament exchanges around Christmastime. Beyond the physical structure of their homes, community was important to residents of these two neighborhoods. Living across the country, many are wondering if they can return to their community. Ours is just one of many communities touched by the ruinous effects of climate change.


Things you don’t consider about natural disasters until you live through one: How do I feed my cat? Can I wash the three pairs of socks I packed for a five day trip? How do you evacuate (for some, in minutes) if you are disabled, ill, or elderly? When (or if) can I return to my home? Will it have working internet service?


For those who came home to find they had none: Where do you stay? What do you wear? For families with small children: How do you explain to them that their cherished pets and toys are gone?


My family camped out at a relative’s house in Denver and watched the news carefully, piecing together information. Away from home for the first significant portion of my life, I find myself particularly prone to childhood nostalgia. I was lucky that most of my possessions were in my college dorm, but, as the status of our house became uncertain, I had begun to mourn sacred childhood artifacts—stuffed animals, charmingly ameteur art projects, the piano I toiled over as a child. As the situation developed, we found out that many of our friends’ houses were gone.


When I woke in the morning to learn that ours had been spared, I felt relief and wonder at the odds but also a tinge of survivor’s guilt. Why was our house still standing when others’ were gone? Some families own the only houses left on their block.


Driving through our neighborhood for the first time felt apocalyptic—entire streets full of houses reduced to fireplaces and hollowed-out cars, backyards full of ash, a melted TV still hanging from the porch of a ruined house. Outside was the smell of thick smoke. As we (clandestinely) re-entered our house for the first time, we looked out the window to see the long hill behind the house had burned. So had a bush just inside our backyard. Somehow, the fence was spared.


The sun came up the next day, and with it a heavy blanket of snow. Striking images of snow atop half-burned cars and fireplaces and pockets of ash where the snow had already melted dotted the landscape. It was a solace after a year of record dryness in Colorado, and it assuaged my longing for a snowy holiday season. Still, I knew a blizzard was just another symptom of climate change. In the spring, snow and cold will give way to sun and beautiful Colorado wildflowers, and this year, a buildup of carbon dioxide will turn ash to green pastures; a reminder that the cycle of nature continues with no regard for man. But before long, the weather will become more extreme. Spring will come, but it will look more like summer.


The origins of the fire are still unknown, though possible hypotheses include a coal mine and a property owned by a cult-like religious sect. It was spread by over 100 mile per hour winds that made firefighting nearly impossible—firefighters’ hoses blew back into their faces as they attempted to rescue burning houses. This fire, a devastating event on its own, is just the latest in a series of increasingly common fires, earthquakes, floods, and other climate change-caused disasters striking communities.


Climate change is such an expansive issue that we sometimes forget the real ways it affects small communities. Statistics don’t fully represent its impact. The image we have of climate change is a distant dystopian society inhabited by future generations, but the reality is that climate change happens slowly—and it’s happening now.


Even after supporting fire relief funds and vowing to pay more attention to my own carbon footprint, I still felt powerless to solve the problem—the damage we have done to our environment is so entrenched that scientists say it could be irreversible by 2030.


Still, I was inspired to see my community galvanize to help fire victims. Local restaurants offered free meals. Hotels gave evacuees discounts on rooms as many waited up to a week to be allowed back into their homes. On Boulder’s Pearl Street, I passed free clothing stores for fire victims made up of community donations. When I tried to donate a few shirts that had been sitting in the back of my closet, I found that clothing drives were full and had stopped accepting donations. One resident painted on a half-burned fence “80027 strong,” the area's zip code. We received endless texts from people we hadn’t seen in years, offering anything they could do to help.


If the world can organize like my community did, we can clean up the mess we made. Climate change is devastating and it is easy to feel ineffectual in the face of increasingly bad odds, but without hope and optimism we will surely get nowhere. Maybe there is nothing to be done, but if we do nothing, we will guarantee ourselves a bleak future. Only humans could have inflicted such damage, but we have the unique power to fix it. A great and confounding complexity of humans—we are fundamentally selfish and greedy, but we also possess the capacity for empathy, optimism and intellect that could save us from what we created.


Molly Dugdale is a freshman at American University studying in the School of Public Affairs. She serves as a Staff Writer for the American Agora.


Image courtesy Shaan Hurley, Creative Commons.

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