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The City of Boulder produces two podcasts: Let's Talk Boulder and Somos Boulder.

Let's Talk Boulder explores our community one conversation at a time, with interviews from city staff, local leaders and your neighbors.

Somos Boulder brings you all the latest city information you need to know in Spanish.

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Check out the first episode of Let's Talk Boulder: "Good Fire, Bad Fire and Climate Change." The episode explores the connection between wildfire and the climate crisis.

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Let's Talk Boulder

Let's Talk Boulder digs into stories and challenges from the Flatirons. Along the way, you’ll hear from City of Boulder staff, 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.

Episode Show Notes and Transcripts

Please see our show notes and transcripts for podcast guest resources, music attributes and a written transcription of each episode. Show notes and transcripts are listed by episode.

Follow us on our journey to prevent waste, give new life to old objects, and build an economic system that regenerates our planet instead of exploiting it.

Special guests in this episode:

  • Jamie Harkins, Sustainability Senior Manager for Circular Economies
  • Emily Freeman, Sustainability Policy Advisor
  • Michele Crane, Facilities Architectural Senior Manager

This episode was produced by Leah Kelleher. Theme music is Wide Eyes by Chad Crouch/Podington Bear. Please see our website for full music attributions.

Call-in opportunity! Tell us how the climate crisis makes you feel. Where do you find hope and courage? Call 303-818-4678 and leave a voicemail sharing your thoughts, and you might be featured in an upcoming episode!

Related Resources:

Music in this episode (edited):

Dig into emotions many of us experience as we live through climate change, along with coping strategies to build hope and personal resilience.

Special guests in this episode:

  • Eva Jahn (she/her), Licensed Psychotherapist
  • Lodi Siefer (they/them), Psychotherapist and Hive Co-Director
  • Louise Chawla (she/her), Professor Emerita at University of Colorado Boulder
  • Heather Bearnes-Loza (she/her), Sustainability Senior Program Manager
  • Sandy Briggs (she/her), Sustainability Program Manager
  • Jonathan Koehn (he/him), Director of Climate Initiatives
  • Emily Freeman (she/her), Sustainability Policy Advisor
  • Daniel Hanson (he/him), Cool Boulder Intern
  • Emily Sandoval (she/her), Community Engagement Senior Program Manager
  • Marya Washburn (she/her), Public Information Officer for the Fire Department
  • Jamie Carpenter (he/him), Wildland Operations Specialist
  • Kerry Webster (she/her), Wildland Fire Senior Program Manager
  • New Vista High School students Lahja, Lucy, Chauncey and Beck.

This episode was produced by Leah Kelleher. Theme music is Wide Eyes by Chad Crouch.

Resources mentioned in the episode:

Music in this episode (edited):

Show Notes

Wildfire preparedness tips and some honest conversations about the importance of supporting your neighbors.

Special guests in this episode:

  • Isabel Sanchez, Community Member
  • Jamie Carpenter, Wildland Operations Specialist
  • Kerry Webster, Wildland Fire Senior Program Manager
  • Brett KenCairn, Climate Senior Policy Advisor

This episode was hosted by Marya Washburn, Emily Sandoval and Leah Kelleher. It was produced and edited by Leah Kelleher. Theme music by Chad Crouch.

Resources mentioned in the episode:

Music in this episode (edited):

Show Notes

Dive into tools and strategies that help create a more resilient, healthy community where people and other local life can thrive.

Special guests in this episode:

  • Kerry Webster, Wildland Fire Senior Program Manager
  • Brett KenCairn, Climate Senior Policy Advisor
  • Chris Wanner, Vegetation Stewardship Senior Manager
  • Zach Hedstrom, Mushroom Grower and Owner of Boulder Mushroom

This episode was hosted by Marya Washburn and Leah Kelleher. It was produced and edited by Leah Kelleher. Theme music by Chad Crouch.

Resources mentioned in the episode:

Zach Hedstrom's work with the Boulder Watershed Collective and Grama Grass & Livestock is funded by the Boulder County Climate Innovation Fund, which is funded in part by the City of Boulder.

Music in this episode (edited):


Brett KenCairn: Climate change is out of the box. We're living into a context we've never seen before. That means our environment in Boulder is going to be much more similar to what's in Albuquerque today than to what we've become accustomed to and think of as Boulder. And therefore, we ought to be thinking who lives in Albuquerque? Not just people, but who are all the other beings that live in Albuquerque who might be wanting to move into our environment? Now we're going to be living in a world that is full of change, and we have to develop a culture that's much, much better at how to do change.

Leah Kelleher: I'm Leah Kelleher.

Marya Washburn: And I'm Marya Washburn.

Leah: And the voice you heard at the start of this episode was Brett KenCairn. You're listening to “Let's Talk Boulder,” a City of Boulder podcast exploring our community, one conversation at a time. Last episode, we dug into how wildfires are made hotter, less predictable, more devastating and frequent by our changing climate. We also talked about the different types of fire – good, bad and really everything in between. So, if you haven’t checked out that episode, we encourage you to pause this one and go give it a listen. It’ll help you understand some of the concepts we’ll be discussing in this episode. And speaking of concepts, one of the key takeaways from last episode was that the connection between the climate crisis and wildfire has a lot to do with water.

Drier, hotter conditions that are being exacerbated by our changing climate are quite literally sucking moisture out of our landscape. And that lack of moisture is really what’s at the heart of the big, fast, and hot fires that we're seeing more and more. We're going to talk about some of the tools we use to fight fire before it happens -- tools that help us create a more resilient, healthy landscape where people and other local life can thrive. We've got a lot of tools in our toolbox – from prescribed burns to nature-based climate solutions. And we need all of them because some don’t work well in certain situations...we’ll get to all of that in a little bit. But first, let's take a step back. I hear the word “resilience” a lot these days – especially in the world of climate communications – the work that I do. We’ve actually already used it a couple times to introduce this episode. How would you define resilience, Marya, specifically when thinking about wildfire resilience.

Marya: When I think about wildfire resilience, I think about the whole spectrum from an individual house to an entire community to really just our whole ecosystem and how capable it is at withstanding... at the very least at withstanding good fire and having good fire be useful to it. So, I think about one of the first fires I was ever on was the Cold Springs Fire up near Nederland. And there's a great photo of a house. Three-hundred-sixty degrees around the house burned, but the house stayed standing. We always say there's probably a little bit of luck, but there was also some work that was done to be able to build enough barrier to help provide that resilience.

Leah: We could do a whole episode about preparing homes, yards and businesses for wildfire, and we did! That’s next episode.

Marya: And then in the bigger picture, what can we do as a community and as a larger group to help everyone be able to achieve that and feel safer and more ready for the next big fire that's going to happen.

Leah: Here’s Brett KenCairn from our climate team. He leads the city’s nature-based climate solutions work, which we’ll dig into later.

Brett: I think of resilience as the counterpoint to sustainability. Sustainability is basically built on the premise that we want the thing that's going on now to stay relatively the same, and we just need to figure out how to keep things going like that. Resilience is about that recognition that in fact all systems change. The world is not going to keep staying the same. So, if I keep configuring myself as if the world isn't changing, then ultimately that thing that I'm doing becomes less and less adapted to what's really the world. And that's what's happening around us – our systems are breaking down because they're no longer adaptive to the world that we actually live in. And so, resilience is about how do we now live in a changed world.

Marya: Yeah, and it's a way to do something within that change. I think that's part of the idea of resilience in general is being capable and willing to work on something throughout the change. Even if we're not glad the change is happening, per say, we'd rather have less fires and that doesn't appear to be the direction we're going.

Leah: But we do have some tools to build resilience in the face of climate change. Let’s talk about those tools. Marya, I figured we’d start with prescribed burns. First off, what are they? And what’s the right term to use? I’ve heard both prescribed fire and prescribed burns.

Marya: Right now, here locally, we're using the phrase prescribed burns. The word we try to stay away from as much as possible is control. We don't do a controlled burn. They used to be called that, but we don't want to create this false perception that we're ever in control of fire. We’re not superheroes, we don’t have like X-men powers. It's more of setting something on fire in such a prescribed way that we are confident in our ability to contain that fire.

Leah: There are different types of burns, right? I’ve heard you talk about prescribed burns, burn piles and agricultural burns. How are they similar and how are they different?

Marya: You bring up a great point that there are different types of burns. So, a prescribed burn, you're basically just setting the ground on fire. The burn piles or the agricultural burns that we do, where we'll burn along a ditch, or we’ll burn piles of fuel that we've cut.

Leah: And we’re not the first people to use fire to manage the landscape. Indigenous peoples have been using prescribed fires for millennia.

Kerry: It's a very complex process to go through and actually put fire on the ground – it's not something we do on a whim.

Leah: This is Kerry Webster with our Open Space and Mountain Parks Department. Her work focuses on building wildfire resilience here in Boulder. Okay, back to Kerry.

Kerry: It's a process that involves our ecologists who come up with some objectives and work with fire managers to write a prescribed burn plan to meet set objectives.

Marya: The general objective is to reduce buildup of hazardous fuels in a forest.

Leah: Like low tree limbs, dead trees, tall grass and other woody brush. Burning this material up reduces the amount of potential fuel for the next wildfire, but it also helps return nutrients to the soil and sometimes creates helpful habitat for wildlife.

Marya: We’re not learning that the way fires can help reduce and recycle vegetation in our forests is incredibly helpful and so, if we don’t burn off those overly dense, unhealthy forests, because those are the ones that can fuel large, high-intensity wildfires, we can be in a better place if we’re burning those off.

Kerry: It’s a process that we work through with Colorado Public Health and Environment through the Air Quality Division. So, just so you know when we do go through and use prescribed fires as one of our tools, it is done in a very calculated manner.

Marya: It's a fire that you plan ahead for. You make sure all of the boxes are checked with weather and the wind and where the smoke's going to go and what the fuel loads are. Will it be able to burn, but it won't burn too fast?

Kerry: And we determine through behavior modeling and experience what conditions we can and cannot burn in.

Marya: Even if all of the other boxes can get checked, but you don't have enough resources... if things go sideways, then we still won't do fires. So, there’s so much that goes into it.

Leah: Mmmm... and there’s a changing climate to consider.

Kerry: Because of the fuels drying out at rates we're not used to, at times of year we're not used to, we’re not getting the same fire effects at the end of our prescribed burns that we were anticipating. And what days we burn and what parameters we burn under is also shifting.

Chris: From just a planning standpoint, that impacts where we put our resources or when we have resources.

Leah: That was Chris Wanner. He manages vegetation on our Open Space and Mountain Parks.

Brett: I just have to wonder whether prescribed fire is going to be the tool that we thought it could be given the fire windows that we have, which are so limited now.

Leah: Brett is bringing up a great point. As the climate continue to change and our windows to do prescribed burns get smaller, we need different tools to fight fire before it happens. We need tools that help build healthy soils that can absorb and retain water.

Brett: What we need to be managing for, especially in the West, is water. And if we were managing towards retaining and cycling water in our landscapes, that is our best defense.

Zach: My name is Zach Hedstrom. I'm the owner of Boulder Mushroom. We're a local center for fungi, mushroom cultivation, education and using fungi in innovative ways to address climate change-related issues such as soil degradation, wildfire risk and other things.

Zach: A mushroom is a fruit. Sometimes we call it the fruiting body. So, you can liken a mushroom to an apple on an apple tree. And the mycelium – this is a network of cells, a net like structure, which grows inside of some kind of substrate. It might be underground, or it might be within wood or rotting pinecones, leaf litter...things like that. Wherever it’s living, but that is the body. So, the mycelium is like the apple tree, and the mushroom is like the apple.

Leah: OK, folks who know me know that I could nerd out about fungi all day, but let’s bring it back to wildfire and water. Zach has been working with the Boulder Watershed Collective to study how quickly fungi break down wood piles and wood chips created during wildfire management.

Zach: Essentially, we're taking mycelium and introducing it into whatever material that we want it to be growing in.

Leah: This process is called inoculation. For those who don’t know, the Watershed Collective is a local nonprofit based here in Boulder, and they work to protect our forested waterways, build resilience, and they help our community be good stewards of the land that feeds into our water system.

Zach: Mycelium are playing a lot of roles simultaneously while they're decomposing material, and this is one of the things we’re targeting with some of these projects. Fungi are able to decompose waste material and turn it into biologically active soil – soil which is full of life. Healthy soil is full of life, it's full of fungi, it's full of bacteria, it's full of protozoa, little invertebrates, worms, things like that. And this is an ecosystem in and of itself, underground, a microscopic ecosystem.

Leah: So, mycelium, fungi, could be a way to deal with all the woody material that’s created when we’re chopping off low tree limbs, clearing brush...

Zach: Historically, smaller fires would have cleared a lot of this brush and fuel out, but we live in an age of fire repression – for a good reason. There's homes and other infrastructure in forest environments, so we have to be careful with fires.

Marya: Yeah, prescribed fire can create a lot of smoke, and just like we can't control flames, we can't control wind. We can’t prevent a cloud of smoke settling on the city.

Zach: But, that being said, repressing fires means that that fuel just builds up and builds up. And then when a fire does come through, it can be incredibly devastating like we've seen in the past. So, one of those solutions is to inoculate it with fungi and turn it back into soil.

Zach: Mycelium and fungi help with moisture retention. Inoculated woodchips can hold two to three, even four times the amount of moisture in the mycelium than a non-inoculated woodchip or woodchips that don’t have any kind of fungi growing in it.

Brett: That's an absolutely staggering amount of additional moisture that's being held in those systems.

Zach: And the reason is, you could think of the mycelium is like a sponge. So, when the mycelium grows through the woodchips, it actually glues all of those woodchips together via a very dense mycelial network. And when moisture reaches that mycelial network, it essentially is absorbed into the sponge. When we talk about landscape regeneration, drought resistance, rejuvenating soil, sometimes the phrase absorbent landscapes comes up.

Brett: We're back to water. And when those systems start capturing water, then they become hydrated, less fire prone, and they start to become the seed beds for a whole bunch of other life.

Zach: We need landscapes which are able to catch and hold that moisture. It’s really incredible – you can dig through woodchips that are inoculated with fungi, and it might be really dry on the outside, and you'll feel moisture in your hands because they're holding on to that because they survive on that.

Brett: If we actually start to rehydrate our landscapes, they are so much more resilient and productive and they can deliver so many more ecosystem services, nutrient dense food, clean water, clean air.

Leah: Zach and folks he’s collaborating with are actually starting to spread mycelium-filled wood chips on one of the city’s open space properties.

Zach: And we believe that it's going to help in a couple of ways. It going to build biological activity within the soil. It's going to cool the soil surface; it's going to slow the flow of water and help with the uptake of moisture in that land. And I'm really excited about this project for a couple of reasons. It's innovative, it's nature-based, and it's also very collaborative.

Leah: Zach is also working with Grama Grass and Livestock.

Zach: Which is a rotational grazing organization, using rotational grazing to provide high-quality, grass-fed beef and as a tool for landscape regeneration.

Leah: This actually brings us to another tool in our wildfire resilience toolbox: grazing and vegetation management.

Chris: That's one of the options or one of the tools in our toolbox.

Leah: When we talk about grazing, we're usually talking about cattle, sometimes goats, eating tall grasses and other vegetation that could be fuel for a fire.

Marya: Right. In places, like where the NCAR Fire was.

Leah: The NCAR Fire burned southwest of Table Mesa, near the National Center for Atmospheric Research. It wasn’t a very big fire – about 190 acres, and firefighters were able to contain it rather quickly. And the fire was actually pretty helpful in that it burned up some of the fuels – the grasses and brush – that were building up.

Marya: That wasn't anywhere we'd do a prescribed fire. It's too close to the city.

Chris: That’s probably a burn that we would not have been able to pull off as a prescribed burn. It's just not in an area where you could draw a line and keep it in the box.

Brett: So, the NCAR fire was a perfect illustration that in some, if not many, we hope many instances of fire, if we been able to get in there and do appropriately designed fuel hazard reduction.

Chris: Grazing, forest thinning or restoring our forests that had fire suppression over 100 plus years. Using thinning or mechanical thinning – folks out there with chainsaws to mimic fire and reduce some of that density.

Brett: We can not only reduce the damage that happens, but we might actually be able to significantly enhance those systems.

Leah: All the tools we’ve talked about so far – grazing, forest thinning, fungi – they all fall into an umbrella of solutions called natural-based climate solutions. And actually, we could call prescribed burns nature-based climate solutions too because they are a natural part of our landscape. But all of these tools, all of these nature-based climate solutions, explore how we (humans) can harness what the natural world already does.

Brett: And how what it already does can actually address, repair and enhance what we're going to need more of – more shade, more water absorption capacity, more nutrient dense food, more clean air, and more clean water because we have so degraded all of those fundamental life support systems.

Leah: We can see how land is drying out across our region. And when there's not enough moisture to support vegetation, what were once green pastures turn into desert. When it gets to this state, scientists call the soil "degraded." Picture the dust bowl – huge clouds of soil blowing off of fields – that's what's at stake due to climate change.

Zach: When you look at millions of acres of degraded farmland soil, what do you do about that? The answer is make soil. Make millions of acres of soil. Now, obviously, that's much easier said than done, but you can put it into a formula. How do you build a handful of soil? How do you build, you know, a bucket of soil? How do you build one acre of soil and then how do you do a million of them?

Brett: And I think a lot of folks might forget that we face multiple crises around the fact that our systems aren't sustainable. Climate is one, biodiversity crisis – the extinction of species is another. The rapid advance of deserts, not just in Africa, but literally in our own backyards. All of these are consequences of systems that aren't sustainable. So, the notion of nature-based solutions to climate change is really I hope, about a larger field of recognizing that we have to change our relationship to the larger living world into one of reciprocity, or we're not going to be around here much longer. So many parts of the living world are just waiting for us to recognize that they're there.

Leah: And we’ve already recognized a bunch of them. Pollinator gardens that support butterflies, bees and birds – all of that beautiful, vibrant biodiversity that we want; absorbent landscapes that hold onto moisture and carbon; a healthy urban forest with connected tree canopies that cool our neighborhoods. Let’s chat about trees for a second because they also connect to fire.

Brett: Forests seed clouds. They literally do. There are dynamics of transpiration and the microbial things that are on the surfaces of those needles that are sending up particulates that then become parts of that water cycle.

Leah: Essentially the moisture in trees helps increase moisture in the air, and that creates more cloud cover. Trees also create shade, and shade means less water needs.

Regina: They can actually lower the irrigation needs for the surrounding area because those areas aren't being subjected to such a full sun. They're not getting that really hot direct sunlight and all that evaporation off the ground. But then when there are storm events, their roots go deep, and they go wide. They can help hold that water in the soil.

Leah: This is Regina Elsner.

Regina: I work for the City of Boulder Parks and Recreation Department. I supervise and lead our urban forestry team, as well as our natural lands team and our urban park rangers.

Leah: Regina’s team works to keep the trees in our city healthy. Many healthy trees equals a connected tree canopy.

Regina: A healthy urban canopy helps to mitigate heat island effect. So, all of that heat that gets absorbed by asphalt and concrete and buildings, and then is radiated back out into the environment. When we have trees, they help shade those buildings, help shade those areas. There's actually research that surface temperature can be as many as 20 degrees lower in areas that have urban canopy.

Leah: And they absorb and store carbon dioxide, which is a climate-warming greenhouse gas.

Regina: We set a goal of having approximately 16% urban canopy throughout the city. There's somewhere in the neighborhood of 600,000 trees, and it's really interesting when you start to dive in a little bit more in depth about where we have canopy, where we’re lower on canopy. It brings in this whole equity conversation about where there’s areas with lower canopy cover tend to be some of our areas with historically underserved populations. And so how do we best serve those communities as well?

Leah: This is a great question, and it has actually been a big focus for Brett’s team. And with the help of community members last summer, we mapped heat across our city on one of the hottest days of the year. We found that areas with very little vegetation and a high proportion, a high number, of hard surfaces – like roads and parking areas – were much hotter than places with trees and other plants. As much as 17 degrees hotter. We’ll include a link to those heat maps in our show notes in case you’re curious. OK, we’ve already discussed a lot of tools, and I’m sure there’s more we could dig into, but instead, I’d like to zoom out a bit. We have a team of city staff dedicated to exploring these questions and creating wildfire resilience strategies. We’ve called them the Wildfire Core Team.

Regina: We have representatives from Fire, Open Space and Mountain Parks, Parks and Recreation, Climate Initiatives, Utilities. There's also a representative from the County Office of Disaster Management. It’s really an effort for all of those departments to come together to help our community be more resilient to wildfire impacts.

Leah: You may be already getting a sense of this: building resilience is expensive work, but the passing of our Climate Tax last November, I think shows that our community is committed to creating a more wildfire-resilient city. One and a half million dollars of the money collected each year is dedicated to wildfire resilience efforts.

Chris: I think we’re really made an effort to pull all of the right people into the room. And I think there's a little bit of momentum that's followed the recent fires and the fact that we all need to kind of put our heads together on how we how we address this.

Marya: One of the first projects the team is working on is getting a new Community Wildfire Protection Plan. The plan will help identify our wildfire risks across the city, the tools we could use to reduce those risks, and suggestions on where we could focus those tools.

Leah: Yeah, I think it’s super exciting to see people in our community – those who work for the city and those who don’t, like Zach – come together to work toward common goals! Those goals being resilience and safety.

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. Special thanks to all the folks featured in this episode – Kerry Webster, Brett KenCairn...

Leah: Regina Elsner, Zach Hedstrom and Chris Wanner. Give our show notes a quick look for wildfire resilience resources, music attributes and more.

Show Notes

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.

Marya: Right.

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.

Marya: Right.

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 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!

Somos Boulder

Un pódcast sobre servicios, programas e información relacionados con el Gobierno de la ciudad de Boulder. Las conductoras Jhocelyn Avendaño y Manuela Sifuentes entrevistan a empleados municipales, así como a miembros de la comunidad y a expertos en temas que son importantes para la comunidad de Boulder, Colorado.

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