Saturday, July 07, 2012

Welcome To Our Year Of Living Dangerously

Writing from Cascade, CO — near the Waldo Canyon fire — Eags taught this blogger a new word: derecho. These straight-winds blow with tornadic force and derecho systems worked havoc in the West as well as the Mid-Atlantic region. Mother Nature has a new face and it's not pretty. If this is a (fair & balanced) proclamation that the climate is a'changin', so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
The Fires This Time
By Timothy Egan

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Nature makes a mockery of our vanity. We live in flood and fire zones, nurture stately oaks and take shade under pines holding the best air of the Rocky Mountains. We plant villas next to sandstone spires called the Garden of the Gods, and McMansions in Virginia stocked with people who have the world at their fingertips.

Then, with a clap, a boom and a roar, fire marches through a subdivision on a conveyance of 60 mile an hour winds. A platoon of thunderstorms so loaded with energy it has its own category name — derecho — cuts a swath from east of Chicago to the Atlantic.

The pines flame and hiss, shooting sparks on the house next door, a fortress no more. The oaks tumble and crush roofs. Almost 350 homes burn to the ground, and nearly 5 million people lose all electricity in sweltering heat. Lobbyists and congressmen curse at mute cellphones and sweat through their seersucker. The powerful are powerless.

So it went the first 10 days of summer, another extraordinary chapter in a weather year of living dangerously. At one point, 113 million Americans were under an extreme heat advisory. It was 109 degrees in Nashville, 104 in Washington, DC, and much of the West was aflame.

If recent history is a guide, it will all be soon forgotten and dismissed. Amnesia, in regard to unpleasant science, is the guiding principle for a political party that has an even chance of winning everything that matters this year.

But at a time when warnings of violence are too often attached to the weather forecast, the unpleasantness may not be so easy to wish away. At the least, we should get used to intimacy with a ferocious new face of nature.

It is one thing to hear that 3,215 daily high temperature records were set in June throughout the United States, following a winter and spring that were the warmest ever recorded. Numbers are like box scores.

It is another to look up from the eerie serenity of the Holy Cross Novitiate here in this chalk-dry hamlet west of Colorado Springs and see the ridge on fire, as if bombed from aerial assault, as the Reverend Kevin Russeau did. The 1922 novitiate is built of marble that was shipped from Chicago after a zeppelin crash destroyed a building there. It is supposed to be fireproof, protecting men devoted to a life of prayer and humility.

“The sheriff called and said you’ve got to get out,” said Father Russeau. He and about a dozen novices evacuated, and the fire skipped over their compound. After returning, the priest said he would never look at the Rockies the same.

“We respect fire,” he said. “We know what fire can do.”

Just down the mountain from him, the storm of the Waldo Canyon fire forced 32,000 people out of their homes. The most destructive wildfire in Colorado history tore through half-million-dollar houses near the Garden of the Gods, at the edge of a city that has shrunk its police and fire department in a tax-cutting binge.

“Unreal,” said residents, after returning to ashen lots.

“Surreal,” said Colorado’s governor, John Hickenlooper.

In Colorado Springs, where even municipal officials have taken the mindless Grover Norquist pledge to never raise taxes, it cost at least $12 million in tax money — most of it from the rest of us — to contain the fire. Not everybody thinks like Norquist.

In the West, the populated fire zone is called the urban wildland interface, a clunky term to describe a vulnerable habitat for almost 40 percent of new homes built over the last two decades. And the fire danger will only grow, as 40 million acres of ghost forests — standing trees killed by an epidemic of bark beetles that metastasize in warmer winters — are ready to burn.

Summer is barely two weeks old and two-thirds of the country is in the grip of a severe drought. More crops will die. More forests will burn. More power brokers will become familiar with the consequences of a derecho. It sounds biblical, but smart scientists have been predicting this very cycle.

In March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in a special report of “unprecedented extreme weather and climate events” to come. The events are here, though the skeptics now running the Republican Party deny the obvious, in large part because they are paid to deny the obvious.

But for those who are already familiar with the new face of nature, no amount of posturing can wish away the fire this time.

“When you live up here now, it’s always a question of when, not if,” said Eric Eide, head of the volunteer fire department in Cascade. He’s been on duty, without pay, for almost two weeks. A few days ago, when it looked as if all 140 homes of Cascade would burn, Eide’s volunteers joined federal firefighters in digging a line and saving the town. It was a daring triage, and heroic. By summer’s end, such actions may be routine — the price of living in a new world that we made, but can no longer dominate. Ω

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]

Copyright © 2012 The New York Times Company

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