Playing with Fire … and Politics in Colorado

When disaster strikes, politicians pounce. And sometimes miss.

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On taking a walk on Labor Day, I looked up and thought, "This can’t be good."  A huge plume of smoke filled half the sky.  Boulder’s Fourmile Fire was on a rampage, destroying more than 100 homes about 15 miles from my own. 

I knew the smoke cloud would be followed by selfless firefighters, low-flying slurry bombers and water-laden helicopters.  I didn’t count on the fact that while the fire still raged, and as families waited anxiously to find out whether their homes had survived, politicians would use the tragedy to push their agendas.

But they did.  Some with more accuracy than others.

Boulder Mayor Susan Osborne took the opportunity to warn about climate change, highlighting a report from the group Environment Colorado predicting more extreme weather events:

In light of the Fourmile Fire, this report could not be timelier. Global warming may not be the cause of the fire, but if we do not act soon, we are likely to see more fires throughout Colorado.

While Mayor Osborne’s comments may seem an annoying way to turn tragedy into object lesson on global warming, they are, strictly speaking, accurate.  A warming climate did not, she admits, cause the fire.  A fire source, combined with dry conditions, a very windy day and plenty of dried grass after a wet spring were the proximate causes. (Evidence now points to a very chagrined firefighter, who used an outdoor fire pit a few days before and thought he’d put the fire out, as the fire’s source.)  But a number of studies do point to more fires as a likely outcome of a warming climate.  

Sen. Mark Udall attempted to use the tragedy to push a bill he has pending in Congress — and missed the mark.  Sen. Udall issued a press release during the height of the fire to drum up support for his "National Forest Insect and Disease Emergency Act," S. 2798.  His release says the bill will reduce wildfire threats caused by the outbreak of pine beetles who are killing millions of acres of lodgepole pine across the state.  His bill would largely target National Forest land.  It would "streamline" approval of logging projects by undermining the National Environmental Policy Act – America’s environmental "Magna Carta."

But is there any relationship between Sen. Udall’s bill and the Fourmile Fire, as his press release implies?  It’s hard to see the connection.

First, the fire started – and remained – largely on private, not Forest Service land.  So undercutting the environmental law that require federal agencies to fully disclose the impacts of proposed actions would have done nothing.

Second, there’s no evidence to date that pine beetle-killed trees influenced the Fourmile Fire.  The fire occurred in the ponderosa pine ecosystem, which has not been impacted by the beetle epidemic impacting lodgepole pine. 

Third, the key rationale for Sen. Udall’s bill is built on quicksand:  scientific studies have long debunked the notion that forest stands killed by beetles increase the likelihood of fires.  In fact, a new study using NASA satellites reached that same conclusion on nearly the same day that Sen. Udall issued his press release.

Non-political observers have drawn more modest conclusions from the fire.  The Denver Post published an editorial while the fire was raging that stuck to what we all know:  Fire will happen in the mountains.  As more people move to the mountains, the risk rises that fire will burn homes.  Federal, state, local and private dollars can best protect homes by focusing on clearing trees and brush within a few hundred feet of the home, not deep in the National Forest. 

It would be great if more politicians would echo the Post’s common sense conclusions.  And some have.  Republican State Sen. Al White, from a district hard hit by pine beetles, recently said that the beetle epidemic "is just a catastrophe of nature, and the best thing you can do is deal with it as best you can, and probably what that means is private property owners trying to create defensible space around their houses and out buildings, and keep our fingers crossed."

And there’s more hope that facts may ultimately influence politics.  Since his press release pushing his bill to weaken environmental laws, Sen. Udall has called for a General Accounting Office study to see what lessons can be learned from the fire.  That’s a good idea.  Learning something from this tragedy which has cost so many so much would be a small silver learning to this smokey cloud.

Ted was an attorney in the Rocky Mountain regional office from 2003–2018. He protected wilderness, roadless areas and the planet's climate on behalf of conservation groups in the Four Corners' states.