Van Manen: Threat of wildfire a clear manifestation of global climate change (column)
Writers on the Range
I am living in the “in-between.” Last October, a major wind-driven wildfire raced through a part of my small southern Colorado community. The town’s several hundred households were evacuated. Eight families lost their homes.
Just days after that fire was contained, another windstorm knocked over an electrical transformer, igniting a second major wildfire. The 19,000-acre burn threatened but ultimately spared my town of Beulah, 25 miles southwest of Pueblo.
These two fires were a repeat of a fire a decade ago. Called the Mason Gulch Fire, it was making a beeline for the town when almost all of us — 900 residents — were evacuated. A shift in the winds saved the day, and the town. We got to return to our untouched homes, but we were warned. This past October, the pattern, and the warning, repeated itself. For those who lost their homes, it was more than a warning.
The months leading up to October’s fires were dry, after a string of mostly drier-than-average years. The months that followed have been as dry as any winter I’ve seen in the 40-plus years I’ve lived in this foothills town in what are called, ironically, the Wet Mountains. It’s been not only drier but warmer as well.
It used to be that we could count on at least a couple of cold spells each winter, when cars wouldn’t start, water pipes froze and the woodstove cranked hard day and night. Getting much below zero is now a rarity. Not that long ago, summers never saw temps get above 90 degrees. The thermometer now flirts with 100 degrees Fahrenheit here every summer.
I live in a little cabin on a couple of acres of Gambel oak and ponderosa pine that have dodged the wildfire bullet several times. Now it feels like I am living in the in-between — between fires that almost swept through my property and the next fire that just might reach it. Saying if it will happen no longer seems as accurate as saying when it will happen.
This isn’t the only in-between I’m living in. The threat of wildfire seems a clear manifestation of global climate change. Bill McKibben’s prophetic 1989 book, “The End of Nature,” which I read shortly after it was first published, was one of the first to sound the alarm about global warming to the general public. Writers hoped that if they tried to make us aware of the catastrophic outcomes of staying on the fossil-fuel path, we would decide to be rational — to change our ways and keep greenhouse gas levels from increasing to dangerous levels.
And now, here I am, as we all are, still being made aware of the dangers of global warming, but doing little to stop the dangerous accumulation of atmospheric greenhouse gases. It’s like being on a train and finding out that it’s a runaway locomotive — out of control and heading for a cliff. We know a cliff is somewhere up ahead and getting closer, but we can’t seem to get the engineer to stop the train. It seems crazy. We know that the train needs to slow down and change course, but the engine seems to be picking up speed with the just-elected, climate-change-denying president and a climate-change-denying majority Congress now at the controls.
My sense of living in the in-between, an ambiguous state, has me wondering where that racing train is on its tracks: Am I closer to the start, with lots of miles ahead, about halfway, or am I nearing the end? The recent wildfires, and the recent election results, have me feeling I am much closer to a cliff.
Climate scientists agree that the maximum safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 350 parts per million, a level that will limit global warming to a degree that won’t destabilize the climate. The year our country was born, carbon dioxide levels were about 280 parts per million. They were 314 ppm in 1958, the year my wife was born. Today, they are 406 ppm. Unfortunately, the numbers support my sense that I am — we all are — well beyond the halfway point of the climate-change acceleration.
Maybe this in-between state is not between learning about global warming and changing our ways to stop it. Maybe we are between learning of it and actually experiencing catastrophic climate change. I hate to think that the train cannot change course before it reaches the cliff. What do you think?
Dave Van Manen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Beulah, Colorado, and works as a nature educator for the Mountain Park Environmental Center.
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