By Julia Olson, Executive Director, Our Children's Trust
My home town is burning and my family's houses are on the front lines, with searing temperatures, zero humidity and high winds fueling a climate-driven fire.
On Sunday, June 24, my mom called to tell me that they were evacuating their home in historic Manitou Springs and my 88-year old grandmother was also forced to evacuate her home on the adjacent west side of Colorado Springs, not far from the beautiful Garden of the Gods, at the base of Pikes Peak. Pikes Peak is the most visited mountain in the country and known to be the second most visited mountain in the world. Its beauty inspired Kathleen Lee Bates to write the poem, which became the song “America the Beautiful.”
It’s Tuesday evening now and I just received the heartbreaking news that my grandmother’s neighborhood is on fire in what is now the highest priority fire in the nation: the Waldo Canyon Fire. Over 30,000 residents of Colorado Springs and surrounding towns have evacuated their homes and the fire is uncontained and growing.
A dozen wildfires are burning across my home state of Colorado. Temperatures are reaching historic records of over 100 degrees for days in a row. Creeks are running dry and there is virtually no humidity. Many of the forests are sitting timber boxes of beetle-ravaged pine and drought conditions. Whether started by lightening, arson, or human error, the conditions making these fires so potent is a direct result of climate change.
When I was growing up in the Rockies, with Pikes Peak as my backdrop, we had thundershowers nearly every afternoon bringing moisture and coolness to the summer heat. My friends and I would run through the puddles of water flowing in the gutters. And just as soon as the storm clouds moved in, the sun would reappear. A day of 90 degrees was considered hot. And there were no mosquitoes.
Now, the forests I grew up in and adore are dying from beetle kill, drought and wildfires that burn hotter and more intensely than the natural fires of a healthy forest ecosystem. Mosquitoes are rampant on a summer backpacking trip in the mountains and the thunderstorms arrive infrequently and usually without a drop of rain, just the lightening. Diminished snow pack and water shortages have become commonplace.
One of my closest childhood friends lives only miles from the High Park fire near Fort Collins, which has burned for two weeks and destroyed more than 85,000 acres making it the most costly fire in Colorado’s history. My college-town of Boulder is also under threat by the Woodland Heights Fire. And Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes, Colorado are also burning. We are losing national treasures. Personally, I am losing places of childhood, public property I belong to and that belongs to us all, and private property belonging to my family.
My mom wonders not what will become of her belongings should her home burn, but what will become of the black bear that visits them regularly in the summer months searching for food. She shares the landscape with innumerable wildlife that are losing thousands of acres of habitat. As a nurse, she also worries for the many people with respiratory conditions that make the smoke life-threatening.
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, a young Coloradan, understands these threats to his community too. He has asked his government to reduce the state’s and our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, which are contributing to the warming earth, the drought conditions, the beetle kill, and ultimately the increasing frequency and severity of fires in the west. In the short video below, Xiuhtezcatl tells his story of another recent devastating fire near Boulder. In his decade of life, he already knows well the losses that climate change brings
In all of the reporting of the Colorado fires, the media fails to mention climate change or carbon dioxide emissions as a culprit. But let’s get honest. We are heating our planet, our nation, our communities. We are creating conditions friendly to insects that invade our forests and harm human health. We are changing our climate system so substantially that precipitation patterns are altered and drought in the southwest and west is going to be the new norm for generations to come. And yes, we will see more and more devastating wildfires that feed off of heat and drought and dying forest. We can keep trying to put out individual fires, but until we address the underlying coals of a heating nation, we won’t stop the inferno.
This loss is personal for me. And yet it’s just one of the devastating impacts of climate change affecting families around the country and the world.
After yet another disappointing round of international talks on sustainability and climate at Rio+20, and during another season of climate-induced fires and tropical storms, one thing should be abundantly clear: it is time the United States government and our state governments took our life, liberty and property seriously and developed a national climate recovery plan. Climate crisis threatens the very foundation of our Constitution and our nation, which was created to protect our lives, our freedom and the property and resources we hope to leave our children.
Our thoughts are with all of those families in Colorado who are losing places and people they love. And we will continue our work to hold government accountable to the people to protect the very things we hold dear.
Postscript: The fire touched my grandmother's front porch, burning many of her neighbors homes, but luckily hers is still standing, as is my mom's. My friends and many others in the community were not as fortunate. As they rebuild their lives, I have hope we will rebuild an energy system that will help prevent continually increasing temperatures and end the destruction from fossil fuel burning.