Notes From A Wildfire Refugee

Editor's Note: In the end, the High Park fire consumed 259 houses, making it the most destructive fire in Colorado's history. Shortly thereafter, though, a dozen more wildfires were burning, and the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs surpassed High Park, torching 350 homes.

The sheriff's call came at 3:30 a.m.: Leave immediately. Luckily, my wife, SueEllen, and I were already up, grabbing passports, photos, dog food, wall hangings from Thailand and Zanzibar. A neighbor had called earlier, warning us that flames were coming fast out of the western foothills, driven by searing winds that transformed our backyard windmill blades into a silver blur.

I'd gone to bed knowing that a wildfire was crackling in the high country beyond our beautiful valley near Fort Collins, CO, and threatened the mountain school where kids sometimes rode horses to class. Still, that school was seven miles away from us, as the sparks fly.

But those sparks were flying like mad, making the fire bound forward a quarter-mile at a time. As we drove off, the foothills seemed to be full of erupting volcanoes—volcanoes on the move.

At least we'd had enough time to gather our wits and valuables, unlike my friend, Gary, who lives up the Poudre River canyon. A 100-foot-high wall of flame exploding over a ridge forced him to flee with just one of his four elusive cats. Another neighbor escaped with just her dog and a sewing machine.

And so it went that night—and so it still goes two weeks later—for thousands of our northern Colorado neighbors. More than 200 families' houses have been burned to ash, and at least one woman has lost her life.

So far, our place and the homes of Gary and his sewing machine-toting neighbor have been spared. For this, we can thank nature's whims and the incredible work of firefighters who managed to beat back the blaze just 300 yards from our property. But whether we've been touched by luck, tragedy or something in between, all of us evacuees now share something. Suddenly, we talk openly about being victims of climate change.

Victims, it's true, with unbelievably greater resources and therefore far better recovery chances than, say, the poverty-smashed lowlanders of Bangladesh, who present the usual face of today's climate-change refugees. But we are victims just the same—perhaps among the first of many all over the United States in the coming years. Understand: I'm not arguing that climate change directly caused the High Park fire. Lightning sparked it, as it has sparked fires for millennia.

Nor am I saying that the increase of greenhouse gases directly caused the awful drought that plagues so much of the West. A neighbor's rain gauge shows that our valley has gotten less than 3 inches of rain so far this year, compared to last year at this time, when more than 11 inches of rain had fallen. Single-digit humidity and the 97-degree temperatures on the day the fire exploded helped make it as bad as it was, though they didn't cause it. Factors like forest management may also play a part, pending further study.

But I am saying that the weeks and months and years of this kind of freakishly hot and dry weather eventually add up to something that feels like more than just an unfortunate trend. Hotter and drier weather means more intense fires, whatever the immediate cause.

I'm not a climate scientist. But I work with a number of them to help communicate their findings to the public, and their fact-based arguments keep piling higher and higher, with almost no countervailing evidence. One 2008 study from Colorado's Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that the average worldwide temperature from 2003-2007 was one degree Fahrenheit higher than the 20th century average. In the 11 Western U.S. states, that difference was 1.7 degrees.

Over the last 17 years, the study also notes, there's been an increase in the number of Western wildfires, with more acreage burned per fire. There's also been an astounding 78-day increase in the fire season. This study largely agrees with regional and global projections from the USGS and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Nowadays, in our partly scorched valley, the hills are alive with the sound of helicopters dousing hot spots and trying to stop new advances. Smoke fogs our days, and lots of people still can't go home to the higher country. I'd like to conclude on a note of hope, noting the human heroics that saved so many structures, or maybe the seemingly unrelated but happy fact that an evacuated alpaca at the Larimer Humane Society just gave birth. The newborn's name is Cinderella.

But I also have to say that, this week, as temperatures push past 100 degrees, new fires are springing up all over Colorado. And summer has just officially begun. Who knows what the rest of it will bring?

John Calderazzo is a writer and English professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he also co-directs a climate change outreach and education program:

This essay originally appeared in High Country News.