Opinion | Tony Jones: Dealing with the new abnormal

I had an excellent morning on the slopes at Breckenridge the other day, boarding the corn snow off of peaks 6 and 8. It was warm and sunny, perfect spring skiing conditions. On the way back to Dillon I noticed how dry the landscape off Colorado Highway 9 was, only an occasional bank of snow on the hillsides visible from the road.

Then, while turning off Swan Mountain Road onto U.S. Highway 6 I noted a mountain biker up on a bluff on Tenderfoot Mountain. That area being one of my favorite spots for mountain biking, I must admit I got a charge out of that. A couple of weeks before, I’d been hiking up that way and noted that the snow still on the trail probably meant that mountain biking would be a ways off yet. Seeing that biker whooping it up on that hillside, I couldn’t help but marvel at how changed the conditions had become in just a couple of weeks.

Given the warm temperatures and high winds that we’ve been experiencing, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. It seems that dangerous weather conditions and a volatile environment are something that we will all need to get used to. It’s the new abnormal as it were — a twist of phrase I got from a reader in response to a column of mine.

In that column I espoused that, given the prevailing climate conditions in Colorado, the Marshall Fire was a disaster that could happen anywhere in the state nowadays. Sadly, an example of the veracity of that notion occurred in Monte Vista recently when six homes in town were immolated by a wind-blown fire — a situation that was only brought under control when the wind let up long enough for firefighters to get a handle on the blaze. Who knows how many more homes might have been destroyed had the wind not let up when it did?

So, what is this new abnormal in Colorado and the Western United States? It’s frequent and persistent drought and record-breaking heatwaves drying out our forests and fields, creating conditions ripe for a wildfire to start and go from a minor incident to a major conflagration in a matter of minutes. It’s the possibility of gigafires (wildfires that burn over one million acres) ravaging our state, fires that experts say will make the East Troublesome and Pine Gulch fires from 2020 seem “not so shocking” in hindsight. It’s having to make alternative travel arrangements when mudslides off fire-denuded hillsides block highways for days or even weeks at a time. It’s water shortages that require extreme measures to keep enough water in reservoirs so that hydroelectric dams can generate electricity.

This may seem like a disaster film in which in the end the Rock will come to save the day so that we can walk away and go back to our normal lives, but it’s not that. The early meltoff that I’d noticed coming back from boarding is a symptom of changes coming to everyday life in Colorado. Coloradans need to adapt to this new abnormal and be hypervigilant about fire issues. This will mean changing the way that we’ve done things in the past, including preparing for wildfire evacuations even if you find such a thought unimaginable given your community’s location and lack of wildfire history. It’ll also manifest in other ways that we’ll have to get used to. No more campfires, no more firework shows, a need to treat any puff of smoke on the horizon not just as a matter of curiosity but a matter of concern.

This isn’t a political issue but rather a life and death issue for all the Western US, particularly Colorado. This is real and in your face climate change that we need to brace and plan for. The Colorado legislature is trying to do just that with SB22-206 which will among other things lead to the creation of a statewide climate preparedness roadmap.

This should be bipartisan legislation as everyone, regardless of party, is vulnerable to these climate change dangers. We’ll need creative input, leadership, and cooperation across the political spectrum to help shape solutions to protect Colorado and its citizenry from the new abnormal.

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