The Calwood Fire drove me from my home. We must all become climate voters.
On Oct. 17, I was told by officials to prepare for a possible evacuation from my home in Gold Hill due to the rapid progression of the Calwood Fire. Moving quickly, my partner and I began gathering belongings we thought we would need and thinking through what our next steps would be should an evacuation be necessary.
We didn’t have much time to wonder. The next day, the Left Hand Canyon Fire started, and a possible evacuation turned into a mandatory evacuation.
Our power had already been cut, and — like many areas of Colorado most susceptible to wildfires — we don’t have cell service at home, so we were reliant on the verbal warnings from volunteer firefighters to know it was time to leave. With only 30 minutes to get out, my partner and I sprung into action to help our less able neighbors prepare, gather their belongings, and evacuate safely.
Though our fear of the fire’s potential impact on our safety and homes was at the front of our minds, we were forced to balance that fear with other concerns, including the potential threat of COVID-19 in overcrowded evacuation centers. After about an hour-long drive out of town and several days and nights spent in different locations, we finally settled in a hotel as we awaited word that it would be safe to return to our house.
To date, the Left Hand Canyon Fire and the Calwood Fire have burned a total of 10,566 acres of land. The nearby East Troublesome Fire has burned almost 200,000 acres earning it the title of Colorado’s second-largest fire to date.
That these three devastating natural disasters occurred in this area in such a short time frame was not a coincidence — the climate crisis is to blame for the frequent, intensely destructive fires we have seen sweeping through Colorado and all over the West Coast. Almost 94% of Colorado is currently in a drought, which combined with a warmer than average summer, led to conditions perfect for these fires to proliferate. Not only are the fires themselves destructive, but so are the chemicals used to fight them.
Some of the fire retardants that can be used to fight wildfires contain toxic chemicals known as PFAS and PFOS. PFAS and PFOS are known to have adverse effects on both humans and wildlife; when applied, these chemicals can seep into local groundwater, contaminate the soil used to grow food, and make it more difficult for forests to regenerate. More wildfires mean that more of these chemicals may be used, leaving us in a vicious and destructive cycle.
When crises like these occur, homes are lost, people die, and wildlife is destroyed. With an increase in the frequency and severity of wildfires, effective disaster response is so critical, and yet many of the government agencies that control disaster response protocols lack the funding to appropriately respond to these issues.
The good news is that the people who allocate that funding are elected officials who have the power to fund the resources needed to combat these environmental atrocities. It is simply not enough to express condolences for the lives and property lost; we need to work to make sure these events don’t keep getting worse.
The first nine months of 2020 have tied the record for the most extreme weather or climate-related disasters of any other year in recorded history. These disasters have resulted in $1 billion or more in damages.
A study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that we only have until 2050 to reach carbon neutrality in order to stave off the absolute worst impacts of climate change. As the climate crisis rages on unabated, we need bold policy action that will tackle this issue head-on.
Coloradans need our elected leaders to believe in climate science and believe in the urgency of this issue. We deserve policies that reflect that climate change impacts all of us, in ways that we may or may not realize. I will continue to use my voice — and my vote — to prevent climate change from continuing to destroy Colorado, the United States, and the world.
Sarah O’Brien is currently a Master of Studies in Law student at CU Boulder concentrating on environmental compliance. Her background is in environmental philosophy.