Climate Change: Boulder fires show local impact

Joanne Keys : Sunday March 13, 2:43PM

As the executive director of the Alliance, I often struggle with how to collaboratively discuss climate change with those who don’t ‘believe.’ This weekend’s Left Hand Canyon and Button Rock fires in Boulder and Longmont brought this home to me once again, in an oh-so-local way.

I am honored to be a long-time volunteer firefighter in the Left Hand Fire Protection District (LHFPD), and was really happy to be able to work on the fireline this weekend. At the incident briefings,  as Incident Commander Buchanan, Boulder Sherriff Pelle and others went through the objectives, safety, weather and other briefings, virtually all those speaking mentioned something about today’s wildland fire reality:

  • We now have year-round fire seasons (vs. the old days when we had distinct fire seasons from about July until the first snowfall). Now, there is no down time to regroup, rethink, retrain and prepare; we just have to always be prepared for big wildland incidents, year round.
  • We now have increasingly very low night-time humidity levels, warmer days, and higher wind patterns, which all mean that the old days of quieter night-time fire behavior (and associated opportunities for gaining ground on containment) are gone. We can get very active fire behavior around the clock, and often little or no night-time absorption of moisture into the grasses and other light flashy fuels, increasing fire intensity.
  • Increasing fuel loads (read that, dead trees), particularly from beetle killed areas, mean we need to stay prepared for bigger and more active incidents.

All of these things would seem to be very clear and meaningful local measures of the real-world, in-our-face impacts of global warming & climate change. And certainly, I can’t think of anyone I know who is involved in fire management that doesn’t ‘get it’. All of these folks know these are impacts of climate change, creating a new reality we have to deal with; it’s just not a question any more. We are responding to it daily. On a global level, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies just reported that 2010 was the warmest in NASA’s 130-year record. The data is consistent and clear.

But I know so many others who claim they don’t ‘believe’ in climate change, don’t think the human-impacts have anything to do with it, or think it’s a hoax by enviro’s trying to turn the world into tree huggers.  I have had genuine difficulty engaging in civil dialogue with these folks, although I strongly believe that that is exactly what we all need to be doing. How do I squelch the impolite and unkind voice in my head that’s yelling, “What’s not to ‘believe’ you idiot??? This is NOT a religious choice! This is NOT about beliefs! What part of the Nobel-winning IPCC report and all of the well-documented clear facts are you unable to fathom???” Easy, girl…that just won’t help.

So, how do I help in the quest to bring the civil dialogue about climate change back to data, facts and a healthy focus on the critical changes we need to quickly implement to circumvent the global crisis we are heading for? I’ve tried sharing compelling and well-respected data reports, like the IPCC reports, and Alliance Hero Lester Brown’s Earth Policy Institute reports among many others; I’ve discussed my first-hand time in Antarctica supporting science and some of the compelling data collected there showing the clear and devastating global trends; we at the Alliance have supported presentations and film screenings for the likes of James Balog’s Extreme Ice or Sven Huseby and Barbara Ettinger’s A Sea Change, the compelling portrait of the devastating impacts of greenhouse gasses and climate change on our oceans (and 2010 winner of NOAA’s 2010 Environmental Hero Award). But much of this results in our simply preaching to the very easy-to-speak-to choir who are already ‘believers’.

Instead, to quote prior Colorado Speaker of the House Alice Madden (one of my personal Heroes of Sustainability), “Don’t just talk to the people who think like you. Get out there and talk to those who are not of like mind.” To take that advice to heart, we all need to be starting the civil discussion in those ‘uncomfortable’ places: go have that beer with that naysayer neighbor or family member, or sit down with that group at the local coffee shop who teases you about your hybrid with the the “My car gets 50 MPG…THAT’S Patriotic!” bumper sticker. It may surprise us all that, just by gently sharing our heartfelt perspectives on the data that’s out there, and our personal experiences about the real-world impacts we are seeing in our own communities, in our travels, and in our own lives, we may open a mind here, shift a perception there, and over time, with a series of small differences, make a much larger and needed shift in perspectives.

For my part, as I headed out to the fires yesterday morning, I stopped by my local Starbucks on the way, personal cup in hand. And I did indeed share the comments from the briefings and my perspectives about my upcoming fireline tasks of the day with my own local crotchety group of naysayers. Perhaps because I was in my fire gear, still grimy from last night’s activities (so maybe I just looked too pooped &  pitiful to counter), or maybe it was because we have had so many on-going quips back and forth over the years, or that it was too early in the morning and they were just  too tired to argue with me, but for whatever reason, for the first time, they didn’t argue with me. They actually just wished me luck & told me to stay safe! This of course doesn’t necessarily mean they ‘believe’, but maybe, just maybe, my very personal experience and my attempt at gentle dialog opened a tiny window to a different perspective.   Just maybe…

Visit our issues pages, and our Climate Change page in particular, to share resources you know about,  your observations, opinions and suggestions. Climate Change is a really big deal, and we’re seeing the impacts every day. Together, we can at least start the dialog!  And actually, we must!

Author Bio:

Joanne is the Interim Operations Director for the Alliance. Joanne brings over 20 years of management and executive level experience in the business and technology sectors, including as a Vice President with American Management Systems (a Fortune 500 company) and, most recently, as the President of NANA Pacific (an Alaskan-native owned technology corporation). She has spent many years managing multi-continental/multi-cultural projects and businesses, and looks forward to helping the Alliance incorporate a broader business perspective into the sustainability arena. Ms. Keys has always had a passion for the environment, having served for many years in volunteer wildland firefighting and in Search and Rescue in remote locations. This includes over six years in Antarctica supporting the US Antarctic Program’s scientific missions. These experiences solidified her passion for the environment and for planetary sustainability. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Virginia Tech.

2 Responses to Climate Change: Boulder fires show local impact

  1. Libby Butler says:

    Thank you Joanne….. Your letter was beautifully written and also inspiring! I know that I will never be able to change the world, but you confirm the fact that everyone we come in contact with is an opportunity for us to share our beliefs. This is one small step toward educating those who are so unaware…… and I have been one of those busy people who hasn’t had a lot of time to learn about our environment and our world. I long for the day that I am able to contribute much more to sustainable endeavors. Thank you for ALL that you do! You are one of my personal heros!

  2. Mort Benjamin says:

    Thank you for pointing out the new forest fire realities in Colorado. Seems like the firefighters would be doing themselves and the public a service by making sure the media discusses those points.

    More funding is going to be needed to keep up with firefighting, so the sooner the public and elected officials get that, the more likely we are to avoid catastrophic damage from fires.

    It’s called “adapting to climate change”.

    Thank you, too, for your volunteer work with the fire department.