Bob Berwyn of Inside Climate News on the New Normal

The Marshall Fire that swept through the Boulder, Colorado area in the last days of 2021 seemed to be an aberration – a destructive wildfire raging while just a few miles away, skiers took turns through Rocky Mountain powder. But as we are learning on a daily basis, climate change predictably creates unpredictable weather events. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Bob Berwyn of Inside Climate News to learn what this fire that destroyed over one thousand homes reveals to us about the new normal.

Narrator  0:01  This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Bob Berwyn  0:19  Denver was just experiencing what was probably going to be its longest ever snow-free period more than 220 days with no measurable snowfall. And that’s directly linked to the something like the Marshall Fire because when you have snow on the ground, it makes it moister. And you know having that extended period of time just drives everything out more.

Narrator  0:43  The Marshall Fire that swept through the Boulder, Colorado area in the last days of 2021 seemed to be an aberration. A destructive wildfire raging well, just a few miles away, skiers took turns through Rocky Mountain powder. But as we’re learning on a daily basis, climate change predictably creates unpredictable weather events. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Bob Berwyn of Inside Climate News to learn what this fire that destroyed over 1000 homes reveals to us about the new normal.

Alex Wise  1:34  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Bob Berwyn. He is a science writer for Inside Climate News. Bob, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

Bob Berwyn  1:42  Thanks, Alex.

Alex Wise  1:44  So you have two new pieces in Inside Climate News that tackle some of the latest whether we I would say aberrations, but because of climate change, these aberrations are more than norm. But why don’t you kind of summarize what’s been happening in the Front Range area of Colorado and how that reflects on some of your work in a larger sense.

Bob Berwyn  2:09  Well, I think  the culmination of a sort of a barrage of global warming, extraordinary heat events this summer, and in the wider West, really set the stage for the horrific fires that broke out near boulder on December 30. What a sad and frightening punctuation mark to the year in terms of climate and speaking with the two climate scientists who live in that area, and who made personal observations during the fires were. Those were gripping conversations. One of the scientists who’s studied forests and fires for decades, a lot of it at CU Boulder right there said this event really is just changing his conception of where he thinks it’s safe to live and where he thinks it’s not safe to live. That’s how unusual this  fire was to, you know, to a guy who studies it professionally. And both of them talked about just incredible amounts of debris and barely being able to open car doors and stand outside in the wind and described the fire racing along cedar fences, almost like a lit fuse, you know, on a piece of dynamite or something like that the wind was pushing it so fast along the fence. And then when he would hit a dry tree or a deck or even a swing set in a backyard close to a house, there’d be another little in the house is gone 20 minutes later.

Alex Wise 3:48  And are you talking about the Marshall Fire here?

Bob Berwyn  3:51  We’re talking about the Marshall Fire that started December 30 and still causes still being investigated. Unfortunately. At last report, two people are still missing. And I think they’re kind of assuming that they’re dead, and may have found some partial root human remains. And it burned 1000 houses and structures of different types homes and businesses and into shopping malls. And the scientists who I spoke with the ones who live there and others who actually I think nearly all of the scientists I interviewed are either live there or have had you know, visiting professorships, they’re studying climate and fire. They all said this is clearly that that global warming is clearly contributing to extreme events like this, that it’s you have to start with that assumption.

Alex Wise 4:46  Yes, you quote a tweet by UCLA climate researcher Daniel Swain who I recommend our listeners follow on Twitter. He’s Excellent. He wrote some additional climate context regarding the Marshall fires. The last 90 days were the warmest and driest such periods since at least 1979. across most of the front range. So while we have this big snowstorm, a lot of snow falling in parts of the Rockies, you had this super arid condition just 2030 miles away, which just allowed for wildfire type conditions that we’re used to seeing in like late summer. And it seemed odd, but maybe that’s the new normal, these kinds of oddities.

Bob Berwyn  5:31  And it’s tough to even call it a forest or a brush fire, because in some areas, actually in quite a few areas during the marshal fire, the houses and other you know, the things around the houses, decks and so on became the main source of fuel that actually what was burning what was burning the most.

Alex Wise  5:52  And those things are usually have some moisture to them, but they were just kindling?

Bob Berwyn  5:58  Well, yeah, after the, like you mentioned, the super warm and dry, just really extended Heatwave, we have to call it an autumn heatwave, you know, the anomalies are, the temperatures are so far above normal that it has ecological impacts, it continues to dry up the soil. And the fuels usually at a time when things start cooling down. And there’s like a little bit of moisture, you know, at least at night. But this is all getting more common with global warming and a lot of different parts of the world. And it’s actually amplified in mountain areas in high elevation areas like Colorado, just like it is here about global warming being faster in the Arctic. Well, it’s also faster at higher elevations, for some similar and some different reasons. So it’s a scary setup for the for the West. And, you know, the Marshall Fire was just the last in a string over the last three years of just terrific fires that burned whole towns and you know, displaced 1000s of people who are still displaced and trying to recover. And there’s no reason to think, at least according to the scientists that this is going to slow down or, or change, you know, I mean, yeah, there probably be a couple years where maybe not so much. But on the whole, we should probably expect more more of this. And even things that we haven’t imagined yet, like up until a week ago, a fire I couldn’t imagine. And I’ve spent a lot of time in that area. And I still can’t completely get my head around the images of you know, multifamily sort of complete, normal suburban style places. Well away from the mountains several miles away from the mountains, really getting closer to larger suburban cities like superior, just completely being burned like that. It’s hard to grapple with. And it has to be seen in a climate context. So that’s the second story I wrote. And while I spent a month in those really warm conditions from mid November to mid December along the front range, and, you know, went out where those grasses were golden and beautiful and just tinder dry. And this goes back not just to the last day, the days as in that post that you referred to by by Daniel Swain. This is a long term 20 year pattern in the West that is you know, really well beyond drought. I think a lot of people are just calling or edification, long term widespread, drying up. That seems to be bullseyed over the Colorado River Basin.

(Music Break)  8:56

Alex Wise  9:28  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Bob Berwyn. He’s a science writer for Inside Climate News. So Bob, what are policymakers looking to do that give you some hope that we can work our way around these new realities?

Bob Berwyn 9:46  Well, that is a good, good question. I can tell you what I hope to see and that would be as we think about rebuilding areas, like the areas that just burned down Colorado about doing it in a way that’s more sustainable with fire resistant materials, and perhaps trying to, to recreate some natural ecosystem features that were there before, before settlement, like stream corridors that have, you know, some green vegetation. And then you know, if you have beavers and some wetlands, and maybe even some bison to graze the grass, so it doesn’t get too long. What are the scientists pointed out that the area that burned was ranch land for a long, long time, and especially since 1950. And especially since 1950, the development the suburban development started there. But during that historic time, when it was ranch land and grazed, there aren’t any historic records of fire in that area. And so he suggested that possibly, you know, some sort of rotation grazing goats or whatever, just rethinking some of the some of the management, and also where the risk zone is, you know, how do we define that? You’ve probably heard wildland urban interface, the the zone where the forest and wild lands meet houses, does this fire make us rethink that? You know, we traditionally have seen it as sort of at the lower elevation fringe of the mountain forests, which are traditionally dry, in any case, ponderosa pine, along that front range there in Colorado. And so there’s been a lot of focus on trying to thin in those forests, especially around subdivisions and near subdivisions. That’s not to say that that, you know, maybe doesn’t work, but maybe it also creates more space for grasses to grow along that fringe. So it’s it’s pretty complex, in terms of big picture climate policy. It’s getting tougher to be hopeful, because we’re really in kind of an emergency and under emergency countdown, the hourglasses is emptying out fast for us right now. And, you know, we heard a lot of a lot more promises at Glasgow, I was there covering the the climate conference for about a week. But then you hear us greenhouse gas emissions went up 77% in 2021. So that doesn’t meet up with the reality of what we have to do. What other types of policy things are you thinking about? Are you thinking about, you know, mitigation of fire danger, or…

Alex Wise  12:48  You write about housing, and from a policy perspective, I was thinking more on a granular scale, obviously, it’s very depressing to look at the climate as a whole. But if you were, let’s say, a local Assemblyman in Lewisville, Colorado, what kind of tools would you have at your disposal to try to protect your constituents from devastating fires, and you kind of address that a little bit as already in terms of the subdivisions and trying to put people in the safer places and create these kinds of buffer zones. But these are people’s homes. It’s not like these, not everybody’s living in mobile homes. They’re they’re very rooted. And there’s a reason why people live in pastoral and less urban places, they want trees, they want to be around nature, but there’s that double edged sword when it comes to fire risk, right?

Bob Berwyn 13:39  Well, in terms of local government to you know, especially a state like Colorado where really land use decisions are made at a very local level, it would be really important for the governments to and this is hard in, you know, and laissez faire development areas, which Colorado kind of is still but it would be worth building capacity at a staff level to to have somebody who’s thinking about this, not just in response to a disaster, but really looking ahead a dedicated person who’s studied climate engineering or whatever. And, you know, expert, resilience experts, disaster expert who I interviewed for this story, but it didn’t make it in the story. So it’s a little extra tidbit for your listeners. One of the disaster researchers said Yeah, that’s actually really key you know, is to build capacity at those local levels. institutionalize thinking about this, have an expert you can prepare staff reports knowledgeably and bring in climate, you know, data to back up what he said. And that’s another way to get climate policy done it at some level, at least resilience policy. There’s a reason that some big cities recently have started appointing chief resilience officers just like they have chief financial officers and whatnot and it still sounds a little strange to the year but it probably shouldn’t, you know. And I really do think thinking holistically about, you know, integrating development and eco scape restoration at the same time, you have a great opportunity when you have lost something to build something new. And I would, you know, I would definitely advocate for that. I’m sure there’s a lot smarter ways to build than the way those a lot of those places were built. And that’s not knocking I’m like I said, I was just there and my mom lived at a subdivision like that. And she had a beautiful house there and enjoyed it. And yeah, like you said, you know, I can understand why people want to live there like that. And at relatively affordable, because when you start talking about building houses out of fire resistant material, it definitely adds to the cost and there’s always resistance to that from from builders and the real estate industry or there can be although it would seem to be in their interest to to get on board with this too, and figure out a way to make it work.

(Music Break) 16:33

Alex Wise  17:22  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Bob Berwyn. He’s a science writer for Inside Climate News. So Bob, it’s obviously not as important as people’s houses being destroyed by Wildfire. But there are a lot of people who are watching the weather right around now in the Rockies, because of recreation, and their jobs are tied to that recreation, and that’s skiing, we’re seeing a tightening window for these ski resorts. Maybe you can kind of connect the dots for us in how climate change is affecting that industry.

Bob Berwyn 17:53  What made me think about it was that when I arrived in Colorado for my month long stay and reporting they’re one of the big focuses of the climate news was that Denver was just experiencing what was probably going to be its longest ever snow snow free period more than 220 days with no measurable snowfall. And that’s directly linked to the something like the Marshall Fire because when you have snow on the ground, it makes it moister. And you know, having that extended period of time, just drives everything out more. And then up in the mountains, this autumn heatwave that you know, brought late summer temperatures and October and even early November resulted in one specific impact that I didn’t really think I’d see until the second half of the century. And that’s temperatures to warm in some cases for snowmaking even at night, so temperature staying at or just above freezing and really only tiny windows so that, you know resorts opened with just one you know, one small or a couple of short runs covered with manmade snow at Thanksgiving and it has snowed since then. And it’s actually you know, it’s actually getting near near normal again. But there is a pattern of these later and warmer autumns that just last longer and it takes longer for the snow to come.

Alex Wise  19:24  And there’s more people skiing than ever before. You know, it’s a more popular sport than it was in 1982. But I read in this New York Times piece that between 1982 and 2016. The American ski season shrunk by an average of 34 days annually and levels of snow cover on average drop of 41%. Interesting who but that’s 40 years ago, so there is a lot more people interested in skiing than there were 40 years ago, but there are significantly less snow days for those skiers to hit the mountains.

Bob Berwyn 19:57  In some cases that’s true. Also for the snow Making  they rely on flows in a lot of cases from local streams. And if you have long, extended dry spells, seasonally or even over the over periods of years, stream flows go down and there’s not as much water available to take for snowmaking. So, you know, in addition to the temperatures, the drying is also cutting, cutting out the model of the ski industry of ski industry operations. And that lack of early season snow cover has impact for ecosystems are at the ski areas that you know, around the Skerries in the mountains when when you have plants that you know have evolved to sort of go dormant with the one or two foot blanket of snow on them and they’re exposed and the temperature is warm enough to keep them growing. And that all of a sudden it goes down to minus 30 you know that can that can kill plants that are not adapted to that to those conditions. So in addition to you know, wow, the fall was five degrees warmer than average which may sound like not that much or even pleasant to somebody you know, in this living in a cool area. But it can set up really extreme conditions that can really have impacts.

Alex Wise  21:24  Yeah, it’s around August and September. We have our annual Sea Change Radio wildfire stories, but what was so interesting about this December fire the Marshall Fire is like this just seemed to just pop out of nowhere but I think we’re gonna see more and more things pop out of quote unquote nowhere because the seasons are all kind of meshing together. As the planet warms.

Bob Berwyn 21:48  The story makes it clear as well that you know there have been grass fires in Colorado in the winter, generally more out on the eastern plains. And I have seen red flag warnings for Southeast Colorado in the wintertime and but again, this wasn’t really a grassfire you know, this wasn’t a wild area this was this was suburbs USA climate change, global warming, chasing people out of Chucky Cheese pizza parlors you know where their kids were having birthdays and videos online showing people just looking completely dazed and confused. They went in it was clear blue sky and they come out and they can barely see their car in the parking lot.

(Music Break)  22:47

Alex Wise  24:06  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Bob Berwyn. He’s a science writer for Inside Climate News. You mentioned the high winds Bob but were the high winds expected or not?


Bob Berwyn 24:18  The high winds were expected and they were forecast and it’s the winds have a name there. They’re called a Shinnok. In some regions of the world, they’re called a fern or a sirocco they have different names in different areas and their winds, their winds that flow down off the slopes of mountains and they increase in speed and they get warmer and drier as they go down the mountain slopes because of physics, and they could gust and this is the time of the year for those winds in the Colorado for a range. You know they they gust more than 100 miles per hour.

Alex Wise  24:55  And then usually though they gust when there’s moisture on the ground and Combining this super dry area with these winter winds turned into this very odd time for a big fire.

Bob Berwyn 25:09  Yeah, and an ignition source, which again, is still being investigated. There’s no lightning this time of year, and there’s no lightning associated with that type of weather patterns. So, you know, there would have to be some sort of local source for that. Which doesn’t, you know, take away at all to, from what happened next and how fast and just unbelievably destructively that that fire spread, I started trying to figure out the per acre cost, it was like 6200 acres, and they’re estimating the estimates, isI were half a billion to $1 billion damage. And then something distracted me, I think an incoming interview phone call, and I never finished the calculation of the per acre cost, but I’m sure it’s really high.

Alex Wise  25:59  I highly recommend our listeners go and check out Inside Climate News to read Bob’s pieces. What are you working on next? Bob?

Bob Berwyn  26:07  There is major climate report coming out next week that will summarize the the annual the annual temperature for 2021 kind of show where the year ranks in recent years, and you know, probably spell out some other climate. Some other climate extremes that that occurred, and my head just reels, you know, I I report on this all year long. And I, when I scroll back through the list of stories, I think I reported on some extreme that killed people. And so I said at the beginning, displaced people disrupted people’s lives took away their their livelihoods, you know, in every month of the year from from, you know, the incredible fires up in British Columbia and just incredibly scorching temperatures for that area, to you know, the smoke from fires that actually affected people that lived hundreds and even 1000s of miles away, and not just for a short time, but for weeks on end, you know, with reduced air quality. We just saw a new study that that talks about the interaction of wildfire smoke with urban pollution. And you know, of course, it’s not good news, it says yeah, obviously you’re gonna get even more ozone. And so you know, there were areas in the eastern part of the US that had really poor air quality for days this past summer from the wildfires out west.

Alex Wise  27:45  Well, it’s great to know that there are at least journalists like yourself putting in the time to explain this to us and I appreciate you walking us through your work Bob Berwyn of Inside Climate News. Thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Bob Berwyn  28:00  Thanks for having me. It was great to talk with you.

Narrator  28:17  You’ve been listening to change radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Grant green Mickey Hart, Stephen Stills and Jose Feliciano check out our website at to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radionext week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio. I’m Alex Wise