Jan 3, 2022 - Science

Climate scientists grapple with wildfire disaster in their backyard

Picture of flames burning homes during the Marshall Fire in Colorado.
The Marshall Fire burns homes in Broomfield, Colo., on Dec. 30. Photo: RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The wind-whipped firestorm that tore through parts of Boulder County, Colorado, on Thursday struck at the heart of one of America's top climate science and meteorology research hubs.

  • Now some of the top minds who study how climate change is amplifying wildfire risks find themselves shaken and struggling to process what they just witnessed.

Driving the news: The Marshall Fire destroyed as many as 1,000 homes and may have killed two people, while leaving thousands of others homeless after tearing through Denver's northern suburbs of Superior, Louisville and Broomfield.

The big picture: While 2021 was full of extreme weather events across the United States, this one stands out for targeting some of the top scientists who are responsible for warning the public about growing wildfire risks as the climate changes.

  • Boulder is home to multiple NOAA labs as well as the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the University of Colorado and the Center for Severe Weather Research. There are also climate intelligence firms and satellite companies located there, such as Maxar.

Researchers told Axios that going into the downslope wind event, a natural occurrence along the Front Range in December, they were wary of grassfires due to the tinderbox dry conditions.

  • The drought, warmth and abundance of grasses following a wet spring sent fire weather indices off the charts just as the unusually intense high wind event struck, with gusts reaching the equivalent of a Category 3 hurricane.
  • "Metrics associated with short-term drought, like evaporative demand, soil moisture, and vapor pressure deficit, were at record or near-record levels for December," said Russ Schumacher, a meteorologist at Colorado State University and the Colorado state climatologist, in an email.
  • "In our discussions in the Colorado Climate Center in recent weeks, we had noted that fire danger metrics also looked really bad," he said.

Context: Merritt Turetsky, who studies wildfires in Arctic ecosystems at the University of Colorado, said she was not surprised to hear reports of small grassfires breaking out in the high winds that were buffeting her home Thursday.

  • It wasn't until she saw satellite and radar images that she realized how dire the situation was.
  • "Climate change led to a perfectly built stack of fuels in the fireplace, ready and waiting to be burned. All it needed was a spark and someone/something to blow on it," she said.
  • She spent the day glued to social media and reaching out to friends and colleagues in harm's way.

Meanwhile, Schumacher also said climate change played a key role, noting that recent years have caused experts to rethink the meaning of "fire season" in Colorado.

  • "The event this week will require everyone to expand their imaginations even further of what can happen here in Colorado," Schumacher said.
  • While a warmer climate is not the only factor behind the disaster, he said, "it’s increasingly clear that a warmer climate is enabling fast-growing fires in situations or times of year that wouldn’t have supported them as readily in the past."

What they did: Unlike wildfires that occur in remote locations, threatening small mountain towns, this one struck a large community unusually well-equipped to study the blaze in real-time.

Josh Wurman and Karen Kosiba study the Marshall Fire using Doppler radar on Dec. 30, 2021.
Karen Kosiba and Josh Wurman study Doppler Radar imagery of the Marshall Fire on Dec. 30, 2021. (Photo: Josh Aikins, University of Illinois)

Karen Kosiba of the Center for Severe Weather Research helped to deploy a "Doppler on Wheels" (DOW) unit — a truck with a rotating, highly sensitive radar attached to it — to scan the smoke plume.

  • The data her team gathered on Thursday could prove valuable to fire scientists, insurance adjusters and others.
  • Accustomed to deploying to tornado outbreaks and landfalling hurricanes, Kosiba said watching this event unfold was more emotionally taxing than usual.
  • "If we are there with a DOW, that's usually not a good thing," Kosiba said. "Usually, I am looking in from the outside. This time I was on the inside," watching parts of her community burn.
  • "I could see tufts of black smoke popping up and you just knew that was someone's house that just caught fire. I could see flames."

What's next: Turetsky is already thinking of what she'd do differently during the next wildfire threat.

  • "When something like this impacts your community, it tests your systems. I need a better contact list for the next time. And that is heartbreaking, because it’s a race for time until the next fire hits our community. Not if but when…."
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