Colorado’s record-breaking wildfires show “climate change is here and now”

The Cameron Peak fire, a few miles west of Fort Collins, Colorado, has engulfed over 200,000 acres and it’s still growing. It has now become the biggest wildlife in Colorado history. 

What’s more astounding is that the Cameron Peak fire is the second fire in 2020 to hold the title of largest wildfire in Colorado history. The Pine Gulch fire near Grand Junction briefly held that title, but for only 7 weeks, having burned 139,000 acres in late summer.

Looking at this in a vacuum, you might think of it as mere coincidence. But zooming out, you need only look two states away in California to find evidence of more unprecedented fires. Six of the 7 largest wildfires in California history have all burned in 2020, and the largest, the August Complex fire, became the state’s first ever gigafire — meaning it burned over 1 million acres, scorching more acreage than the state of Rhode Island.

Cameron Peak Fire burns outside Drake
A firefighter is silhouetted as the Cameron Peak Fire, the largest wildfire in Colorado’s history, burns outside Drake, Colorado, on October 17, 2020.

Loveland Fire Rescue Authority via REUTERS

This year Mother Nature has supplied us with smoking-gun evidence to prove what climate scientists have been warning about for decades. The scorched-earth impacts of climate change have arrived.

In a letter the editor published in the journal Global Change Biology, two of the world’s foremost experts on wildfires conclude that the “[r]ecord-setting climate enabled the extraordinary 2020 fire season in the western United States.” 

“Our 2020 wildfire season is showing us that climate change is here and now in Colorado. Warming is setting the stage for a lot of burning across an extended fire season,” says Dr. Jennifer Balch, professor of fire ecology and director of Earth Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder.

According to Balch, Colorado in the 2010s saw a tripling of average burned area in the month of October, compared to the prior three decades of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. “We do see fall fire events in Colorado, related to fast, downslope winds. But to see multiple events start this late, in the middle of October, is very, very rare.”

Perhaps it’s rare, but as of Monday 10 notable fires are burning across the state. The Cameron Peak fire’s eastern extent is just 5 miles from Fort Collins and Loveland.

Locations of Colorado wildfires as seen October 19, 2020.

Google Maps

Two of the most concerning new fires are burning in Boulder County and forcing evacuations. The CalWood fire — the largest fire ever in Boulder County — and the Lefthand fire have both exhibited extreme fire behavior, shocking even seasoned climate scientists.

“Even as a scientist studying extreme weather & wildfire in a warming climate, I was shocked by how fast #CalwoodFire roared down

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Vote Karla Esser for Colorado’s Board of Education for District 7

Karla Esser is the right pick for State Board of Education in Congressional District 7.

Esser, a Democrat from Lakewood, has an incredible background in education. She taught in public schools in Germany for years, served as an assistant superintendent in rural Colorado and most recently was a teacher of teachers at Regis University where she was the director of graduate programs for licensed teachers before she retired.

Karla Esser is a Democrat and longtime educator running for state Board of Education from Congressional District 7.

Now she is ready to serve on Colorado’s Board of Education to help direct the future of the state’s schools.

“If you’re an assistant superintendent or a principal you spend hours watching the state Board of Education and if you’re at Regis in teacher education you spend hours watching the state Board of Education and I feel very strongly that people on the board should understand what decisions will mean for the field,” Esser said.

In other words, she is ready to hit the ground running on day one with an understanding of what the board does and what it needs to do.

Esser’s opponent in the race, Republican Nancy Pallozzi, has a different kind of education experience, which is also incredibly valuable. She’s a parent. But learning the workings of the board would take Pallozzi more time.

Esser’s top priority is to not only advocate for more funding for Colorado’s public schools but to push for more equitable funding across the state, doing away with a school finance act that is leaving some school districts on the losing end of state funding.

And she is certainly not wrong that Colorado’s standardized testing regime has too many tests and is taking too much time.

“I’ve seen districts spend more time and more money on testing than I would have ever thought possible and I don’t think we are getting a return on that investment,” Esser said.

We agree. She wants to look at the possibility of moving tests to every other year or drastically reducing them. And she said tests are needed to track student progress, but she would rather rely on the assessments that schools and teachers already are implementing on their own on top of the state assessments.

We do urge Esser to reconsider her opposition to accountability measures called for in state law. One of the most important roles of the state Board of Education is using its powers to demand reform and change at some of the state’s chronically underperforming schools. This is an important role. Esser raises good questions about the efficacy of some of those reforms – there is a mixed legacy of improvement at these schools.

But that mixed legacy is far better than just doing nothing.

Colorado must continue to track school performance. We like that it’s now based on a growth model that takes into account where a student begins and how much progress they make in a year, rather than just a raw achievement

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