On droughts and fires past

 

At first glance, nothing about the photo seems awry. It shows a truck spraying water on the dirt streets of Silverton, Colo., elevation 9,318 feet, to keep the dust down, a regular occurrence in May or June. This photograph, however, was taken on New Year’s Day. In the background, mountain slopes that regularly see some 200 inches of snowfall each winter are dry and snowless. And the avalanche-prone San Juan Mountains were “enjoying one of the most delightful winters ever experienced,” according to the news story accompanying the photo.

The picture was not taken in 2002 or 2012 or in some climate-changed future in which January in the mountains feels like September. It was taken in 1918. So strange was the event that “moving pictures” were captured of “the little parade and jollification (!?!) that was the outcome of this never to be forgotten day.”

During the 12 months leading up to that day, Silverton had received only 17 inches of precipitation, according to local weather observations, at least 10 inches less than “normal.”* Colorado, as a whole, also experienced a very dry year, and New Mexico posted what still stands as one of its driest winters on record. Despite all the fanfare, though, that “never forgotten day” was most likely erased from the collective memory as soon as the next abnormal weather pattern struck -- maybe as early as the storms that spring that sent fatal avalanches careening down the hillsides.

That winter of jollification had certainly been forgotten by this summer, as most of Colorado, following a dry, warm spring, burned. And these days, where there’s fire, there’s often a resounding chorus of voices telling us that climate change has finally come home to roost, and that this “unprecedented” weather is only going to get worse from here on out and the apocalypse is just right out there on the horizon. Who knows, they may be right. But unprecedented? At times like these, it pays to look back at the historic record, which shows that no matter how weird a short-term weather pattern may look to us now, things were probably weirder in the past.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Weather-wise, we do live in unusual times, even when that winter of 1917-18 is taken into account. The first decade of this century was the hottest and third driest for the Southwest since 1901, with a resulting decrease in streamflows. June 2012 was the hottest on record in the Four Corners states as a group, and for Colorado alone. Thirteen of Colorado’s 14 biggest fires on record have burned since 2000 (more on this in a minute). And it’s all happening during a time when human-caused greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are at unprecedented levels and global temperatures are on the rise.

So are those rising global temperatures causing the heat wave that’s causing the fires? Tough to say. As a NASA bulletin put it: “This heat wave, like all extreme weather events, has its direct cause in a complex set of atmospheric conditions that produce short-term weather. However, weather occurs within the broader context of the climate, and there’s a high level of agreement among scientists that global warming has made it more likely that heat waves of this magnitude will occur.”

History only complicates matters more. After all, that winter of 1917-1918 was pretty nasty (or delightful, depending on perspective), and it wasn’t caused by man-made climate change. 1902 was a dry year, and “sleighing was impossible” on Silverton’s streets during the 1890-91 winter. If NOAA figures are to be trusted, New Mexico** has actually gotten wetter over the years (even as Colorado has gotten drier).


The winter of 1878-79 was also extremely dry in the San Juan Mountains. How dry, exactly, is not known, since weather records weren’t being kept back then. But anecdotal accounts, along with the end results, indicate that the snowpack may have been worse than in 1917-18, and the spring on par with this year. Newspaper accounts mention a mild winter, say that farmers in the nearby lowlands were planting seeds in March, and they say that all of the snow was melted off the high country trails by early May, which wasn't even true this spring. In June, something ignited a fire in the high altitude forest between Silverton and Durango. The fire spread unchecked across 26,000 acres, filled the air with smoke and ash that made the new settlers feel like they were facing down Armageddon and burnt the once-dense forest near Molas Lake near Silverton to the ground. It would stand as the largest wildfire in the state’s history for 123 years.

But that wouldn’t keep it from being forgotten. This year, when the Denver Post and the Denver Public Library compiled a list of the biggest fires in state history, they left the Lime Creek Burn off the list. It wasn’t just an oversight. As far as I can tell, the people working on the list had never even heard of the fire (they have since amended the list). It’s a testament to how easily we forget our history. It’s also remarkable to note that in just the last 10 years, that 123-year-old record fire was pushed to the number 7 spot for the state

Although it’s being swept out of the record books, the Lime Creek Burn is worth remembering. It shows us how much we are, and always have been, at the mercy of the weather, the climate and natural fluctuations. We live in unusual times, but then we always have. More than that, the scars of that long ago burn, now made beautiful by time, can offer comfort that the ghostly burned out forests of today will be the aspen-dappled meadows of the future.

*The choice of Silverton as a focus here is somewhat arbitrary, but it’s also because weather in the small town is almost always a bit extreme. Just seven years before that weirdly dry year, the town received a total of 44 inches of precipitation, leading to catastrophic floods throughout the San Juan region that are still (kind of) remembered today.

** I mention New Mexico precipitation records because weather patterns in southern Colorado tend to be more in line with New Mexico patterns than those of Colorado as a whole.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News

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