How Climate Change Transformed Southwest Colorado, a Place I Love
IN 2002 I RETURNED from a senior trip to find a towering plume of black smoke above my home in Durango, Colorado. Smartphones didn’t exist yet and calls home had been brief. I had no idea I was coming home to a massive wildfire — the “Missionary Ridge fire” — just one of the many wildfires burning in my home state of Colorado that year.
Standing in my high school gymnasium, I watched people rushing from supply tables to waiting volunteers. Outside, ash-covered firefighters were lying down all over the high school lawn, fallen in place to catch a moment’s nap. Where the parking lot should’ve been, stood a tent city, the matching army tents forming a little village with more firefighters in their yellow and green uniforms. I squinted in the ash-filled air and could see the flames raging through the canopy with no sign of slowing.
We’d been in a drought for years but had finally reached the tipping point. In Colorado, most moisture comes from the snowpack, stored there like a frozen reservoir providing water during the dry spring. Then, usually, relief comes in late June and July with the monsoon season. That’s how it used to be at least. In 2002, there had been an extremely low snowpack and by early June the ground had been dry for a long time. In fact, according to the Durango Herald, the county had received only 1.3” of precipitation all year. The Animas river was barely a trickle and the hillsides were brown. Over the ridge, the heart of the fire raged towards Vallecito Reservoir. Well, it was usually a reservoir. This year it was empty. People had actually parked their vehicles in the middle of the bare lake bed to get them out of the fire’s path. What should have been a green lush valley lined with ponderosa pines was brown, black, and ablaze.
In Southwest Colorado, the climate is just on the line between arid high desert and alpine. Winter storm systems usually come from the southwest where warm pacific moisture funnels in. El Niño years are wet with lots of snow, but La Niña years can leave the area dryer with above average temperatures. These patterns were normal, predictable. However, in the last few decades, the reliability and predictability of these currents and their weather patterns have been changing. La Niña years can now bring record snow, and El Niño storms can fizzle out before they reach the region. Everything has become extremely variable. Droughts are longer and more severe, and some years the monsoons never come at all. Some 2016 studies by Climate Central have shown that the western U.S. has warmed by an average of 1.9 degrees since the 1970s. This means the snow shows up later and melts sooner, giving the trees more time to dry out. In the 1970s a wildfire season lasted about five months. Today fires are starting earlier, and some don’t stop until the snow returns — extending the wildfire season to seven months. Fires are also getting bigger with large, 1,000-acre-plus burns increasing every year. The Missionary Ridge fire burned 72,962 acres. To compound the drought issues, the warmer temperatures are also allowing the bark beetles a longer lifespan and less die off in winter. This means huge stands of pine trees are being killed. Forests of brown, dead trees are a common sight now, sitting there just waiting for a spark. The climate is changing and with it the landscape of the west, and my home.
After the Missionary Ridge Fire, when the rain finally came, landslides crashed down, blocking roadways, damaging homes and leaving brown scars on the hillsides. It has been years now since that massive fire, but the land is still marred. Before the 2002 wildfires happened, they were smaller and less common. Now there is at least one fire every year. In 2012, I remember standing in my yard and counting five plumes of smoke surrounding the town. Fire has become normal, blackened stands of trees a familiar sight. I can’t look around without seeing the evidence of a fire, each year adding more scars. My whole life the warm smell of Ponderosa bark, like vanilla icing, can bring me back to memories — of camping, hiking, rafting and playing in the Colorado forests. Now where trees do grow back after a fire, they aren’t the mighty Ponderosa but scrub oaks and Piñon pine — the smaller, faster growing, more hardy tree varieties. As the earth warms and the fires continue, I wonder if we will be able to keep our forests, or if this is the beginning of the desert creeping north. It is hard to know what else may lay ahead. What I do know is the scenery I grew up with has changed, the smell has changed, my home has changed.