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.
When Hani Ahmad left his home in Colorado Springs as the Waldo Canyon fire raced down the mountainside, he expected to return. When he did, the house where his family has lived for two decades was a smoldering hole in the ground. The only recognizable remnant was a melted hunk of stove. As the family rounded the corner for the first time, Hani's daughter captured the horror on her phone. The family agreed to share the footage with Climate Desk, offering an exclusive look into the heart of the destruction.
Hani is searching for answers in the ashes. Built-up fuel, high winds, and the proximity of houses to the forest all play a role, he says. But eating away at him is the worry that climate change made it worse—and that the danger is only growing.
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:
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 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 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/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 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.
The High Park fire rages in northern Colorado on Monday.
For the past 30 years, residents of tiny Laporte, Colorado, near the Wyoming border, have gathered inside Bob's Coffee Shop to swap gossip over coffee and Danishes near the dense pine forest of Lory State Park. But since the weekend, Bob's has become a very different kind of social hub: a de facto refugee camp for homeowners fleeing what many here call the worst wildfire in decades.
From a booth just a mile and half from the fireline, Bob's owner Chris McCullough described in a phone interview seeing forest ridges ablaze with arching orange flames, a sky blanketed in thick white smoke, and ash falling like snow. At other tables, locals shared updates about the fire's spread and talked about what they were—and weren't—able to save from their homes, which may—or may not—still be standing.
"It's the fastest-growing, hottest-burning fire I've ever seen," said longtime resident and Bob's patron John Brewer, whose home was evacuated Saturday night. "I don't know how we're going to survive this one."
"It's the fastest-growing, hottest-burning fire I've ever seen," said one longtime resident. "I don't know how we're going to survive this one."
Other evacuated locals agreed. "The whole hillside was erupting as we were looking at it," said Charlie Wrobbel, who was awoken in bed with his wife Saturday night by the sudden flash of 40-foot flames a few hundreds yards from the doorstep; they snatched up pets and what personal items they could carry and drove off. "We were heartbroken, because we didn't know if there would be anything to come home to."
By Monday afternoon, they still didn't.
The High Park fire, as it's known, had grown to nearly 60 square miles by late Monday, making it, along with a massive fire still raging in New Mexico, one of this year's earliest of the mega-fires that ravage the West every summer. One man is believed dead, according to the local sheriff's office, along with over 100 structures destroyed. The fire was started by lightning, which on Saturday morning ignited a stand of pines that, after an unusually arid winter and spring, were 30 percent drier than normal.
Most visitors to New York City crane their necks for a view of the city's famous skyline, but locals know better: To get the best views, you have to go up. Here's your chance to take a rare—and vivid—journey atop a few of the city's billion square feet of rooftops.
As the Big Apple faces ever-hotter summers, officials are looking for ways to cool off in some of the only unused space left in a crowded city: rooftops.
Fertile vegetated "green" roofs absorb the sun's rays, while reflective "white" roofs bounce them back to space. Both are sprouting up in response to a 2008 city rule that requires new roofs to be climate friendly. Meanwhile, the city is working with the Obama administration to overhaul its hulking construction bureaucracy, making it easier for solar panel installers to turn rooftops into the city's fastest-growing energy provider.
Climate Deskstrapped on hardhats, jumped into elevators, and scaled ladders to see firsthand how the roofscape of New York is adapting to face a changing climate.
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 relationshipwith 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.
Maria 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.