Tim McDonnell

Tim McDonnell

Climate Desk Associate Producer

Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.

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Updated: What's Happening With the Colorado Wildfires Explained

| Fri Jun. 29, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
The National Guard drops water onto the High Park fire approximately 15 miles west of Fort Collins, June 18, 2012

This explainer is being continuously updated; click on a question below to read the answer. 

Update: Monday, July 2:  Firefighters continue to make progress on the Waldo Canyon fire, which is now 55 percent contained. The Denver Post has an interactive Google map that allows you to navigate the neighborhoods damaged by the fire. Here's a video shot by a resident returning to his scorched neighborhood:

Update: Sunday, July 1, 2:39 PM: Firefighters have contained 45 percent of the Waldo Canyon fire, and evacuations continue to be lifted. Officials slightly increased the count of houses destroyed to 350, and the death toll was raised from one to two. The Denver Post reports on residents confronting the damage here; the Boulder Daily Camera's take is here. The High Park fire is now 100 percent contained.

Here's a Colorado Springs resident describing the moment when she found out the moment her house was destroyed in the Waldo Canyon fire:

Udpate: Saturday, June 30, 10:30 AM: The High Park Fire is almost completely contained, an most evacuees are returning to their homes. Meanwhile, the Waldo Canyon fire is now 30 percent contained, but since the weather has become hotter and drier, firefighters expect a challenging weekend. The Denver Post reports that burglaries occurred at several of the homes that were evacuated.

Here's a time-lapse video of the Waldo Canyon fire, taken from June 23-June 28. (I recommend muting the terrible soundtrack.)

What are the biggest fires that are currently burning?
Friday, June 29: There are currently ten active wildfires in Colorado.

The second most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, the High Park Fire started near Ft. Collins on June 9 and has burned more than 140 square miles and destroyed 257 homes, to the tune of $36.4 million in firefighting costs. It is now about 85 percent contained, and nearly 2,000 evacuees are just returning home. It's expected to be completely contained by July 1.

The other high-profile blaze is the Waldo Canyon Fire, which started on June 23 just outside Colorado Springs, the state's second-largest city. At about 26 square miles, the Waldo Canyon Fire is smaller than the High Park Fire, but because of the population density in its path, it's already the most destructive in Colorado history. So far, it's only 15 percent contained and has killed one person and burned 346 homes on 35 streets, according to the Denver Post. Tens of thousands around Colorado Springs have been evacuated, and Army troops are working to protect the Air Force Academy there. So far, the Waldo Canyon Fire has cost $3.2 million. "Huge, ugly, black clouds of smoke," is how one evacuee described the fire to the Post. "When you step out of your front door and there's smoke, it's absolutely terrifying."

Here's a video of President Obama's visit to Colorado Springs:

 You can see before and after aerial views of the landscape around both the High Park Fire and the Waldo Canyon fires with this cool USGS tool.

This is a video taken from a home near the Waldo Canyon (Colorado Springs) fire:

 Here's one view of the High Park fire near Ft. Collins:

The National Guard/FlickrThe National Guard/Flickr

And here's smoke from the Flagstaff Fire as captured from a parking lot at the nearby University of Colorado-Boulder:*

Zach Dischner/FlickrZach Dischner/Flickr

How do these fires compare to others in history?

In late May, the Gila National Forest Fire became the biggest in New Mexico history, eating up more than 265 square miles. While neither of the big Colorado fires has yet to claim such a title for itself, the governor is already calling it the worst fire season in state history, with four dead statewide,  hundreds of structures destoyed, and nearly $40 million spent.

Are these fires caused by climate change?

In a conference call with reporters this morning, leading climate scientists Dr. Steven Running of University of Montana and Dr. Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton explained how more frequent and severe wildfires are a predictable by-product of global warming, as higher temperatures leave dried-out forests just a lightning-strike away from uncontrollable blazes.

"This is really a window into what global warming looks like," Oppenheimer said. "It looks like heat. It looks like dryness. It looks like this kind of disaster."

Scientists are reluctant to attribute these or any fires directly to man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Still, the fires fit squarely into a pattern predicted by climate models that show emissions driving warmer winters that lead to longer, drier summers.

The Waldo Canyon fire invades the Mountain Shadows neighborhood of Colorado Springs Tuesday, June 26.  Jerilee Bennett/Colorado Springs GazetteThe Waldo Canyon fire invades a Colorado Springs neighborhood on Tuesday, June 26. Jerilee Bennett/Colorado Springs Gazette

Is this the new normal?

If local temperature averages continue to rise, then yes. This March through May was the second warmest such period on record for Colorado, and as the chart below shows, it's been exceptionally dry:

Courtesy NOAACourtesy NOAAA 2009 federal study found that higher spring and summer temperatures are the principal cause of more and bigger fires in the Southwest. Movever, Running added, higher winter temperatures mean less snowpack to keep fallen wood moist; this year, Colorado's snowpack has been 80 percent below average. Warmer winters also benefit the invasive pine beetle: More beetles are surviving the winter and emerging hungry, leaving a wake of dead trees that make perfect kindling.

Smoke from the High Park fire seen from National Guard post near Ft. Collins.  The National Guard/FlickrSmoke from the High Park fire seen from National Guard post near Ft. Collins. The National Guard/Flickr

So if this is the new normal, what's the best way to fight fires?

The important thing, Running said, is to keep brush buildup low by using carefully controlled burns and collecting and reusing dead wood from the forest floor. Firefighters should also focus their efforts on areas near human development, and let fires out in the wildnerness burn more freely. This week, at least one Washington lawmaker railed on the Forest Service for not doing more to aggressively battle the flames. But Running cautioned that with high winds, the fires "are like a nuclear bomb going off," and that telling anyone to simply stop them is like telling NOAA to simply stop hurricanes before they reach land.

Both scientists agreed that if, as predicted, wildfires continue to become more frequent and severe, there will only be so much we can do to control them.

"There's always a shortfall between climate change and people's ability to engineer or adapt," Oppenheimer said. "Eventually, if we don't control emissions, we won't be able to adapt."

Two residents near the Waldo Canyon fire embrace as smoke rises over their neighborhood.  Mark Reis/Colorado Springs GazetteTwo residents near the Waldo Canyon fire embrace as smoke rises over their neighborhood. Mark Reis/Colorado Springs Gazette

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the photo taken from the UC-Boulder parking lot was of the High Park Fire. The sentence has since been fixed.

GOP Ally of Big Coal Smears Environmental Activist With Kiddie Porn Accusation

| Tue Jun. 5, 2012 10:50 AM EDT
A mountaintop-removal coal mining site in West Virginia.

When award-winning West Virginia anti-coal activist Maria Gunnoe went to Washington, DC, last week, she was prepared for obstructionist tactics. She was prepared to face icy stares and hard questions from Republican lawmakers. She was not prepared to be branded a pedophile.

On Friday, Gunnoe testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources in a hearing on the Obama administration's contentious relationship with the coal mining industry. She had prepared a slideshow presentation that included a photograph by the photojournalist Katie Falkenberg depicting a nude young girl sitting in a bathtub filled with murky brown water. The photo was meant as a salient statement to legislators on the impact of coal mining on society's most vulnerable. "We are forced to bathe our children in polluted water," she said. "Or not bathe them."

Such water is common in taps near mountaintop-removal sites, Gunnoe told me yesterday by phone, and often contains high levels of arsenic, which can seep into groundwater via underground cracks caused by mining explosions.

It was a point she never got to make: Shortly before she testified, Gunnoe was approached by committee staffers at the direction of Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) and told she had to remove the photo from her presentation.* She complied, but after testifying was escorted into an empty side room by Capitol Police Special Agent Randall Hayden and questioned for nearly an hour about the photo, which she had gotten the approval of the photographer, the child's parents, and Democratic committee members to use. Gunnoe said Hayden, whom she described as kind and professional, told her the committee believed the photo to be suggestive of child pornography, and that he would be following up on the possibility of her being involved in such illegal activity.

"I had to pull my chin off the table," Gunnoe, a mother of two, said. "It gives you a very sick feeling when you're actually a protector of children." In 2009, she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work defending rural West Virginia communities against the health and ecological impacts of mountaintop-removal coal mining.

The smear tactic against Gunnoe has nothing to do with coal mining issues, of course—but while the tactic may seem shocking, it's not difficult to see why Lamborn and his allies would react with such hostility. Lamborn, the Chairman on the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, has long kept close ties to coal—a billion-dollar industry in his home state—last year blasting what he called Obama's "war on coal" in a keynote address to the American Coal Council. 

Maria Gunnoe Rainforest Action Network/FlickrMaria Gunnoe Rainforest Action Network/FlickrFalkenberg, who captured the original image, said it was taken in the presence of the girl's parents, and with their express consent, for a series she was working on about the human effects of mountaintop-removal mining. 

Late Monday, a Capitol Police spokesperson said the investigation had so far "discovered no criminal activity"; in a separate phone interview with Mother Jones, Hayden said the case was still open and declined to detail any specifics. "We look at everything, and then the US Attorney makes a decision about whether or not to prosecute," he said.

Committee spokesman Spencer Pederson said that after Lamborn decided the photo was "inappropriate for committee use," committee staffers, with the blessing of committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), contacted police to "apprise them of the situation." Lamborn's office, and the child's parents, did not return calls from Mother Jones for comment.

Joan Mulhern, an Earthjustice staff attorney and friend of Gunnoe who was present at the hearing, said the committee's tactic wasn't fooling anybody. "Committee Republicans are in denial and want to stay that way about the human health effects of mountaintop removal," she said, adding that the suggestion of Gunnoe being involved with child porn was "despicable."

* Clarification: Gunnoe was not approached by Rep. Lamborn's staff, as the story originally stated, according to his spokesperson Catherine Mortensen. After unsuccessful attempts to get comment from Lamborn's office on Monday, Mother Jones was contacted by Mortensen on Tuesday afternoon; she confirmed Lamborn decided that the photo should be barred from the presentation—but did so without looking at it himself, instead relying on the recommendation of Natural Resources Committee staff, who also contacted the police.

* Editor's note: In an earlier version of this story published on June 5, Mother Jones included the photo at issue, crediting and linking it to the website of the photographer, Katie Falkenberg. Later that day Falkenberg contacted us to request that we remove the photo, in accordance with the family's desire that it not appear in the media, at which time we removed it.

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