Explore the connection between wildfire and the climate crisis.
Special guests in this episode:
- Jamie Carpenter, Wildland Operations Specialist
- Kerry Webster, Wildland Fire Senior Program Manager
- Brett KenCairn, Climate Senior Policy Advisor
- Chris Wanner, Vegetation Stewardship Senior Manager
This episode was hosted by Marya Washburn and Leah Kelleher. It was produced and edited by Leah Kelleher. Theme music by Chad Crouch.
Check out resources mentioned in the episode:
Music in this episode (edited):
Scanner voice: 2504 non-structure fire, 1245 Wildwood Road at Bear Canyon PH. Delta Response.
Scanner operator: 2590, starting to get a bunch of 911s – they said it's near the NCAR building.
Second scanner voice: So, I do have smoke on the back side of a knob. It's south and west of NCAR. Cannot see the fire itself. We're going to get geared up and hike up the Bear Canyon trailhead to get a good look at it...
Third scanner voice: Can you get a hold of some rangers? We need to start doing evacuations in the...
Fourth scanner voice: Zones two and three mandatory evacuation...
Marya Washburn: I was not in Boulder when the NCAR Fire started – I was down in Colorado Springs and was driving north back to town and started hearing that there is this fire in Boulder. And we were evacuating folks. Rolling up to it, it was really easy to see because we were above it. It was easy to see how close it was to some of the houses in Table Mesa.
And it was easy to see the firefighters just working on the line, digging line and how close they were. And those planes got very close as they were dropping and flew right over our heads. And I think I'll always remember watching, going up Table Mesa and seeing all the cars in the other direction and everyone kind of getting out of the area because they were scared for their homes.
Leah Kelleher: I'm Leah Kelleher.
Marya: And I'm Marya Washburn.
Leah: And you're listening to Let's Talk Boulder, a city of Boulder podcast exploring our community, one conversation at a time.
Well, since this is our very first episode, I think it's worth introducing ourselves and the show a little bit more. This show is going to dig into some pretty complex topics like wildfire, climate change, community resilience and many more. And along the way, you're going to hear from those of us who work for local government, local leaders and your neighbors. And we hope you'll walk away from each episode feeling a bit more connected to this place we call home.
Marya: Mm hmm.
Leah: Like I said, I'm Leah. I lead communications for all things climate. I work with folks from our Climate Initiatives team to help our community better understand the work we do... how we're making our energy systems cleaner and more equitable, how we're building a more circular economic system that reuses and reduces our consumption. And, of course, nature-based climate solutions, which we'll be discussing in the first couple of episodes of this show.
Marya: It's going to be awesome. And I'm Marya Washburn. I lead communications for all things fire as a public information officer for the City of Boulder. They also call those folks PIOs, so you'll probably hear me say that in the podcast a bit. With the Fire Department, I work in the fire and emergency response world to help our community better understand how fighting fire happens and how people can be safe in all of those sorts of emergency situations that we see.
I've also been a firefighter at my local volunteer department in Lyons for about ten years.
Leah: Before we jump in, we wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the many different emotions that may come up for folks while they're listening to this episode. We're going to be talking about some potentially triggering topics like wildfires that have happened in our own backyard or in neighboring communities.
Marya: Just last year, we had two significant fires that were really close to home. We had the NCAR Fire in March of 2022, and then the Marshall Fire was just a few months before that at the end of December in 2021. As many of us know, that was a pretty devastating fire, and it's now the most destructive fire in Colorado history in terms of property loss.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also known as NOAA, they put together a super cool story map that takes you through the Marshall Fire from spark to recovery. We'll put a link to that in the show notes. Definitely give that a look to get some more info on that fire. So, that's all to say that we've seen firsthand and experienced firsthand, especially recently, the devastation that wildland fires can cause here in Boulder.
Leah: Yeah. I know for me, even when the wind starts to pick up, I get that knot of anxiety.
Leah: But we hope that through listening to the conversations in this episode and the next two episodes, you'll walk away feeling a bit better, more prepared and more resilient. Okay, let's jump into it. So, we chatted with a bunch of different folks who work for the city, who come from different backgrounds, different departments.
Marya: We sat down with Brett, Chris, Kerry and Jamie. Jamie Carpenter is on Boulder Fire Rescue, and he's part of the Wildland Fire Division and has years of experience with wildland fire.
Leah: We also had Brett KenCairn from our Climate Initiatives team. Brett leads a lot of our nature-based climate solutions work, which is everything from connecting our tree canopies above our heads to creating absorbent landscapes which absorb carbon and water beneath our feet.
Marya: Yeah. And then we had Kerry Webster...
Leah: She's with our Open Space and Mountain Parks Department and is their new Wildfire Program Manager – working to coordinate wildfire projects, from planning to implementation, across the open spaces and mountain parks where we hike and spend a lot of time outdoors.
Marya: We also have Chris Wanner, who is with Open Space and Mountain Parks, and he's been with the city for a while and has really been a fundamental part of figuring out how to best manage our wildland-urban interface that exists on our Open Space and Mountain Parks.
Leah: One second, Marya. I feel like I've heard that term, wildland-urban interface, thrown around quite a bit as we've been talking about wildfire and what we do about it, all that good stuff. What does that mean for folks who don't know?
Marya: So, the WUI, it's fun to say which is I think part of why I love it. Wildland urban interface is where an urban environment is next to a wildland environment. So, Boulder's a great example of a WUI environment. We have the Flatirons, which are beautiful, amazing hiking all this open space, mountain parks, Forest Service land nearby. And that's a wildland environment.
And then we have Boulder. We've got a place that has a much higher potential for a wildland fire start, and it's next to a community that would be really detrimentally affected if we had a wildland fire nearby. So, we're really conscious of those WUI environments because of that risk.
Leah: Thanks – that's a helpful definition. OK, so one of the big topics for this episode and one of the things we talked about a lot in creating it was the connection between the climate crisis and the increasing intensity and frequency of wildfires that we're seeing in Boulder. And that connection seems to center on water.
Leah: And really the lack of it.
Brett KenCairn: We have been sort of trained in the era when there was still a lot of controversy about whether climate change was happening, to call it climate change instead of talking about global warming. In fact, it's about global warming. The earth is warming up, and one of the consequences of that is that we are creating conditions in which forests in particular are going to get drier because of these hotter summer conditions.
And then you combine very dry forests with some form of ignition and you're going to have more and more intense fires.
Leah: This is Brett KenCairn.
Brett: These new mega-fires that are getting started are both driven by and create weather patterns that can dehydrate landscapes, literally, literally suck the moisture out of them. They become explosively possibly fire-prone.
Jamie Carpenter: From at least my perspective, starting out in fire quite a few years ago now, it was, “oh, we had some rain, or we had some snow, we had a precipitation event will be good for X amount of days – we'll be good for a week with the rain that we got.” Now, we'll be lucky if we're good for a day, and as we sit here now, on March 9th in a red flag warning day, where we just had two days of pretty, cool wet weather with rime ice on the trees at high elevations... there is no normal. There's just today.
Leah: This is Jamie Carpenter.
Jamie: What are the conditions today? How worried are we based on that data?
Brett: When I first joined the city and started working on this update of our Climate Action Plan, one of the things that I came across was this National Academy of Sciences study about the projections for fire risk in the Western United States based on climate change. We were still arguing about whether climate change was happening and whether our activities were somehow influencing it.
Brett: So, it's in that kind of a context that this report comes out and it mapped the Western U.S., but especially the Intermountain West, and it showed that our area was going to face a 600% increase in fire incidents. It was kind of like jaw dropping and people were like, is that a misprint? 600%? And of course, you know, subsequent to that, we've had so many incredibly devastating fires, including the one in our backyard last year.
Leah: Here's Chris Wanner.
Chris Wanner: We always talked about we're in fire season and what that means and the fact that June, July, August were our real active times of the year that we needed to be considering fire. And now it's January, February, March – you know, there is no real end to the season.
Leah: That was Chris Wanner.
Marya: We used to get a good rain and be like, “ah sweet, we're set for weeks,” and now you get a good rain and then two days later it's really windy and you're like, “hey, look, day three, red flag day.”
Leah: We can't really talk about fire in Colorado without acknowledging that it's a natural part of our landscape and it can be good for our living systems like forests.
Brett: These systems actually evolved with fire over millennia, and fires are a very important nutrient-cycling system.
Leah: Healthy burns, those slow-moving and cooler fires, actually release nutrients locked up in dead plant and animal matter, and return those nutrients to the soil, which creates healthier soils. When we talk about natural fire, we're talking about fire that isn't started by human beings. Instead, it's started by something natural, like a lightning strike.
Marya: A lightning strike fire is often a less scary fire because it's happening further away from people.
Leah: And they've historically been accompanied by thunderstorms that bring rain.
Marya: You see a lightning strike fire, and you might be able to stop and think, how do we have to attack this? Because they're usually more rural and remote, and can we use it to our advantage to help burn off some stuff that needs to get burnt off? Or do we need to go put some water on it and dig some line around it?
Jamie: You know, think about a lightning strike in a ponderosa pine and fire just kind of gently creeping around doing its thing, cleaning up some of the forest floor. And then the next thunderstorm putting it out.
Leah: But then, of course, we have climate change, which is dramatically changing how we're seeing fire behave, whether it's the year-long fire season, the repeated red flag days, or just the fact that rain no longer provides us enough moisture to feel comfortable for weeks that we might not have another red flag day or the threat of fire starting. And pair that with our inability to sometimes let fire do its thing, say if it's too close to a community, and then we get into a pretty tough situation.
Brett: We've fought fires and contained fires for so long that that natural factor that used to keep those fuel loads in balance has been removed.
Leah: We've found it useful to label fires as good and bad when thinking about the helpful roles fires can play versus how destructive they can be.
Marya: When we call it good fire, it doesn't mean it wasn't stressful or scary for folks. And the reason I say that first is because the way I like talking about good fire versus bad fire is... the NCAR Fire is a good example of a good fire. It was scary. People had to evacuate. I want to acknowledge that for sure.
But it was not a hot, fast, intense and tall fire. They use the word crowning. You think about a crown is on the top, the crown of the trees will burn. And if the fire is moving from crowning and moving from tree to tree, that's a scarier fire. That's a bad fire. That's a harder fire to stop because that's a part of the ecosystem that's harder to put out versus if it's on the ground and you can dig a line and kind of create that perimeter around a fire.
So, the NCAR Fire was a good fire because it stayed low to the ground – primarily. It moved in such a way that firefighters were able to get ahead of it and set up hose, and water, and dig lines. We could get airplanes in the air putting retardant down because it wasn't too windy.
Jamie: We like our job. We like fighting fire, but we like it when it's attainable. There's some green grass, there's, you know, the fuel moisture in the trees is such that fire is going to move a little bit, but we know we're going to catch it.
Marya: And it's interesting because if that fire had been not so close, it would have been sort of the ideal prescribed fire. We would have wanted it to be a little bit less windy, but that's the kind of fire that you want to have burn to help your ecosystem recover...be safer.
Chris: That's one of the benefits of fire that you can always replicate. You think of the grasses and the needles and all that stuff on the ground that you're not going to rake up. There's no other way to address those small fuels out there. That's probably a burn that we would not have been able to pull off as a prescribed burn.
You know, it's just not in an area where you could draw a line and keep it in the box.
Jamie: When I think about good fire, I think about fire that's meeting an objective.
Marya: They burn up fuels that we want them to burn up like the brush and other woody material down at the lower levels of the forest, the ones that we'd like to clear out to make for a healthier landscape.
Leah: And they don't damage our soils and kill all the trees in an area which is incredibly important to keep ecosystems intact.
Chris: It's really that balance between what the impacts are to the native system and the impacts to more of the urban and human systems. When you mix in the wildland-urban interface, you know, you've got homes adjacent to those wildland fuels. The picture becomes a little more fuzzy. Any fire next to somebody's home or in somebody's neighborhood is not going to be an ideal situation.
Leah: This fuzziness Chris describes is the gray area between good and bad fire. So, we can consider a fire good in some ways, like the NCAR Fire burning away all those fuels that could have led to a bigger, more destructive fire in the future. But it was also a bit too close to homes. So, like most things, there is a gray area, and a fire is often not purely good. It can be a little bit of both good and bad.
Marya: We also see gray area in good fire and bad fire when conditions might change. So, the Cameron Peak Fire, in the middle of that fire occurring, there was a day where it snowed and it doused a lot of the fire and that kind of changed conditions – it helped it make it easier to fight. And then things dried out again and winds picked up and then it made it bad fire again because it was hard to catch and was moving so fast. So, things such as weather, wind, how hot it is, those can definitely change those nuances of good fire versus bad fire.
Leah: We've kind of described it already, but what is bad fire? What does that look like?
Marya: It's the fires that are so hot and so fast that we can't get a handle on them. Firefighters never want to say that they are controlling the fire because you don't control things like that. But you can confine and contain, and that's what we work to do on fires – on wildfires. With a bad fire, it's hard to find a way to confine and contain it.
And the worst bad fires are the ones where it's burning near a community and then you're just trying to get the people out. And you save everyone you can, and then you try to get ahead of that fire. We saw a lot of bad fires in Colorado in 2020, the three largest fires in Colorado history, at least as of this recording, all happened that fall in 2020.
We hadn't had as good of a snowpack that winter and by spring there were pretty bad drought conditions around the state and the ground and fuels there just weren't retaining the moisture that they needed. And then that, coupled with us being in the throes of the COVID pandemic, had fire departments across the state pretty concerned for the well-being of their communities. We were worried something big was going to happen, and then we got some pretty big fires.
Leah: Yeah, Jamie and Kerry were both at the Pine Gulch and Calwood fires, which were two bad fires that burned in 2020. Pine Gulch was started by a lightning strike near Grand Junction and East Troublesome and was human caused and started north of Kremmling.
Kerry: When we got the call to Pine Gulch, that oh man, “by the time you guys drive over to the back it's going to be out because the wind's going to stop blowing and it's not going to go anywhere. And the wind just didn't stop blowing. The fuels were so dry. We were taking weather observations and we have belt weather kits...
Leah: Belt weather kits are these handy tool kits that firefighters use in the field to get a sense of what the wind, and humidity, and weather is doing in their exact location. It's very analog in the sense that no electronics are necessary. It's just simple tools, some charts, paper, a pencil. They're very useful for firefighter awareness and safety.
Kerry: And they have a chart on them that tells us elevation, you know, what your relative humidity is, and it was so low, it was off the chart, and we had to use our phone app to do that. Which then tells you what your fuels are like. It was the largest fire in Carter's history at that time.
Leah: I read that it ended up burning a little over 139,000 acres, and East Troublesome beat it a couple of months later. It burned more than 193,000 acres.
Jamie: We had returned from Pine Gulch when East Troublesome started. And the hairs still stand up on the back of my neck thinking about those conditions, a fire start in that area, and having some really close personal connections to that area. I was really concerned.
Marya: And that's the day it jumped the divide, which quote unquote, was never supposed to happen. I feel like we're seeing more and more of that in the past ten years of quote unquote, that never happens, and then the next season it happens, such as the East Troublesome jumping the Continental Divide at over 10,000 feet.
Jamie: And sure enough, we were standing on the other side of the divide on the Calwood Fire when it made its big run. And I remember having this terrified moment looking up at this purple sky going, please don't let that be our firing operation. That was a remarkable fire behavior day.
Brett: Which we're going to see many more of.
Jamie: Mm hmm. Yeah.
Marya: I remember talking to firefighters after the Marshall Fire, how difficult it was to try and not be able to effectively get ahead of the Marshall Fire. And then it really turned into, let's just make sure we can get everybody out and see if we can capture little pockets of this fire. But that was a really rough day for the local firefighting community and for everybody.
It was going so fast we couldn't get ahead of it. It paradigm shifted us to the idea of this could happen to anybody and this could happen to the suburban world. Which the firefighting community, I think was aware of based on a couple other fires that have happened in the U.S. and in Canada recently, where it's turned into – the word they use is conflagration, where it's not the trees catching the next tree on fire, it's the houses catching the next house on fire.
And the Marshall Fire was a configuration, and that was a really tough reality check. It definitely increased the amount of people in Boulder that wanted to have wildfire home assessments and see what they can do to mitigate the risk for their homes and then for their community.
Leah: So, where do we go from here?
Brett: I think that one of the things we're going to have to grapple with is, we're going to be living in an entirely different circumstance than we lived in for a long time. And how are we preparing our policies and procedures to live in that world, especially around like how we manage ecosystems? I mean, think about how much fire behavior has changed just in the last decade.
Chris: From just a planning standpoint that impacts where we put our resources or when we have resources. From a land management standpoint, you know, our windows for prescribed burning or on the ground management has gotten shorter and shorter because it is so dry and we can't reintroduce fire.
Leah: This is a great segue into our next episode. So far, we set the scene what's good fire, bad fire, the gray area between and how the climate crisis is connected. We've essentially outlined the problem, but there are solutions and we're doing them.
Marya: Yeah, and that's where we're headed and focusing on in episode two, how do we fight fire before it happens? What are things the community can work on? How do we create a more resilient built and natural environment that really helps us prevent those big, bad fires, and helps us recover faster and hopefully better in ways that we can just be more resilient and more ready for the next thing.
Leah: And if you got 30, 40 more minutes to listen, jump into the next episode. It's going to be good.
Leah: This episode of Let's Talk Boulder was produced and edited by me, Leah Kelleher.
Marya: With the help of me, Marya Washburn, and our City of Boulder colleagues. A special thanks to all the folks featured in this episode Kerry Webster, Brett KenCairn...
Leah: ...Chris Wanner and Jamie Carpenter. Be sure to check out our show notes for wildfire resources, music attributes and more. And subscribe! Tell your friends. Spread the word about this show so we can get more and more folks listening. Thanks – see you next time!