The most destructive fire in Colorado history: What I've been working my whole career to prevent

My little girls and I recently huddled around our bedroom window watching helplessly as smoke billowed and flames ravaged our neighboring communities. After months without any precipitation to saturate the dehydrated ground, a climate nightmare was coming true before our eyes — an uncontrollable urban firestorm propelled violently by hurricane-force winds. While my family remains safe and housed, my heart breaks for our community members who have lost everything. Close friends who barely got their dog out before everything burned except their chimney; a renowned climate scientist who threw his climate modeling computers in the back of his car as the flames advanced; a colleague who is trying to find temporary housing. While the climate-fueled inferno is over, the pain people are feeling will be a slow burn. The scars will run deep in Boulder County.

Now, as impacted residents sift through the fragments of a thousand or more lost homes and countless irreplaceable anchors of memory and community, I am struggling with the realization that so many other communities across the world face. Our climate is altering in unprecedented ways as a result of burning fossil fuels. Given the dire impacts of climate change, the world requires an all-hands-on-deck approach to climate action. This includes preparing communities for the devastating impacts of climate change. It also includes doing everything in our power to mitigate future disasters by stopping more climate pollution from entering the air we breathe and removing legacy emissions already lodged in our atmosphere.  

As director of Sustainability, Climate Action and Resilience for Boulder County, I have spent my entire career working to reverse the climate crisis. In fact, just last month we received recognition for being one of the top communities across the world taking serious climate action. I was reluctant to share that news given that a handful of local governments cannot do this alone. Yet, we are doing everything in our power to reverse the trajectory of this climate crisis: from leading statewide policy efforts, to longstanding energy efficiency programs and supporting carbon drawdown efforts, to a potentially precedent-setting lawsuit against fossil fuel giants to pay their fair share of the costs associated with the climate change impacts so they do not fall disproportionately on taxpayers. Local governments like Boulder County can lead the way in our communities, but we cannot do it alone. Federal leadership on climate change is required to help accelerate climate solutions.  

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When I first started my career in 2002, climate change still felt like an abstraction — something we would face when my children were adults. However, the forces at play are undeniable and climate change is impacting us today. It seems that at least once a month I navigate delicate conversations with my children about extreme climate-related disasters. We talk about what we would pack if we had to evacuate. We talk about how we can help our community rebuild. It is a sobering window into this terrifying new normal, especially if our global climate crisis continues unchecked. Let’s not forget that Boulder County has now experienced six significant wildfires and a 500-year flood event in the last 20 years alone. 

Other local governments around the world are also leading the way —  ahead of their state and national counterparts — by taking aggressive action on climate. On the heels of President Biden’s visit to the destruction and debris across Boulder County, we again call for federal leadership and investment in rapid emissions reductions and the critical counterpart of restoring our atmosphere through carbon dioxide removal. Carbon removal is the process of removing legacy emissions from the atmosphere, which scientists say must work in tandem with mitigation to stop the worst impacts of climate change. 

Over the next decade, our communities will face more climate disasters like Colorado’s Marshall Fire, and all of the social, emotional and economic costs that follow. Given the record levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere fueling climate impacts, it is increasingly clear that we must look for climate solutions that simultaneously reverse climate change while improving our communities’ ability to respond to the disruptive impacts now taking place. As we recover from the Marshall Fire, Boulder County will continue to lead the way on climate action, but we cannot do it alone. We need all of us working together, including even more ambition from the federal government, to stand a chance.

Susie Strife, Ph.D., is the director of Sustainability, Climate Action and Resilience at Boulder County.