When the so-called Black Forest Fire ignited near Colorado Springs on June 11 and quickly spread across 14,000 acres of forested neighborhoods -- destroying more than 500 houses, killing two people and forcing thousands to evacuate -- it was an obvious tragedy draped in orange flame retardant.
But let's keep in mind, a political disconnect contributes to wildfires like this. It can be found in Colorado Springs and many other Western communities, even though it's not widely acknowledged.
Climate change increasingly drives the monster wildfires -- the science is well established by now. So is the fact that industrial and vehicle emissions are driving climate change. Yet many of the scorched communities continue to elect climate-change "skeptics" to Congress, who use their federal power to suppress climate science and block attempts to slow the pace of climate change.
Colorado Springs, for instance, hosted another monster last summer, the 18,000-acre Waldo Canyon Fire, which also killed two people while destroying 347 homes and forcing more than 30,000 to evacuate. The Waldo Canyon Fire was considered the most destructive in Colorado's history, until this summer's Black Forest Fire surpassed it and claimed the title. Both of these Colorado Springs fires were ignited by people, accidentally or on purpose, but conditions linked to climate change -- record-breaking heat waves and prolonged drought turning vegetation to tinder that's aching to burn -- caused them to become monsters.
And who does Colorado Springs, a conservative military town, elect to Congress? Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn. Since the local voters sent Lamborn to Congress in 2006, he's taken predictable stands against gun regulations, abortion, gay rights, taxes and regulations. He also uses his political muscle to ignore climate change, while backing the oil and coal industries that generate a great deal of the carbon emissions that are causing climate change.
As the flames spread through the Black Forest area in his district, Lamborn's congressional website expressed concern for the victims, providing maps of the evacuation area and information on how evacuees could get assistance. Meanwhile, his website's "Energy & Environment" section says there's an "urgent" need to "ramp up domestic production of oil and gas right now." It touts his many efforts on that front, including a "historic bill" he sponsored and pushed through the House in 2011-12, the so-called PIONEERS Act (H.R. 3408) -- a proposal to loosen regulations to "open up oil shale (development) in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, open up the Outer-continental shelf to oil and gas production for most of the continental United States, open up Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to energy production (and) require the Keystone Pipeline project to be approved" to enable more development of Canada's oil sands, the worst kind of oil in terms of carbon emissions.
Lamborn is also proud of another bill he introduced, the "Streamlining Permitting of American Energy Act of 2012" (H.R. 4383), which would not only loosen regulations on drilling, but would also make it more difficult for environmentalists to challenge the drilling with lawsuits.
Lamborn co-sponsored the aptly named Free Industry Act (H.R. 97) in 2011, trying to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency "from regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant and from implementing global warming regulations." In 2009, he sponsored H.R. 945, which called for the U.S. government to be wary of international treaties in which many nations vow to limit greenhouse gas emissions. And he voted against the 2009 "cap-and-trade" bill that sought to set up a system for limiting U.S. carbon emissions (the House passed that bill, but it stalled in the Senate -- the closest Congress has come to limiting carbon emissions).
As for the other regulatory path toward limiting carbon emissions -- a new tax on carbon, a proposal now resurfacing in Congress and the Obama administration -- Lamborn has signed a pledge organized by Americans for Prosperity, a front for the oil billionaire Koch brothers, vowing to block any carbon tax.
And how about wind and solar power and energy conservation -- the other key paths of action on climate change? Lamborn has voted against federal subsidies for all three.
Basically, as the wildfires burn through Colorado Springs, they're an indication of what the local voters can expect if they continue to elect a congressman who's taking a path toward having more fires like this for many decades to come. The same political disconnect shows up in many other conservative Western communities that are hit by fires and other consequences of climate change, including the pine beetle "epidemic" that's killing the current generation of lodgepole pines on millions of acres in the West along with the whitebark pines that are a crucial food source for grizzly bears (lots of dead trees = more fuel for the fires).
The Republican Western Congressional Caucus, for instance, frequently opposes government actions on climate change, and its list of members includes not only Lamborn, but also Colorado representatives Scott Tipton, Cory Gardner and Mike Coffman; Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis; Utah representatives Jason Chaffetz, Rob Bishop and Chris Stewart; Arizona representatives Trent Franks, Paul Gosar, Matt Salmon and David Schweikert; New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce; Oregon Rep. Greg Walden; Idaho representatives Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador; Nevada representatives Mark Amodei and Joe Heck; Washington representatives Doc Hastings and Cathy McMorris Rodgers; Montana Rep. Steve Daines; and California representatives John Campbell, Jeff Denham, Kevin McCarthy, Tom McClintock, Buck McKeon and Devin Nunes. All of those states, and many of those congressional districts, have been hit by monster wildfires in recent years.
These Western politicians, and many other conservatives the West sends to Congress, fall into Lamborn's pattern, taking stands against any form of cap-and-trade, against EPA regulations on greenhouse gas emissions, against a carbon tax, against international treaties for action on climate change, against subsidies for wind and solar energy, against fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, and for oil and gas subsidies and more drilling pretty much everywhere.
Just last summer in Pearce's district -- the southern half of New Mexico -- thousands of people breathed unhealthy, smoky air and dealt with all the other fallout from the largest fire in New Mexico's history (the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire, which spread over nearly 300,000 acres of forest), as well as the most destructive fire in New Mexico's history (the Little Bear Fire, which destroyed more than 250 buildings while spreading over 44,000 acres). Pearce -- who held the House seat from 2003 to 2008, took a break for an unsuccessful run for a Senate seat, and then won re-election to the House in 2010 -- also expresses concern over wildfires on his website ... while condemning the scientific consensus on climate change as "crap."
Walden's district in southeast Oregon was hit by last summer's Long Draw Fire, which spread over more than 500,000 acres of sagebrush that provided ranchers with livestock grazing and sage grouse with nesting habitat -- reportedly the biggest Oregon fire in 150 years. The Oregon sagebrush was so primed to burn, again with climate change as a factor, 300,000 acres burned in a single night. Voters there have been electing Walden to Congress since 1999, and he's among the signers of the Koch brothers' pledge to never support a carbon tax.
Idaho's two representatives in the House, Simpson and Labrador, might've gotten soot on their clothes if they came within range of two big blazes in their state last summer -- the Mustang Complex Fire, which spread over more than 340,000 acres, and the Trinity Ridge Fire, which covered 146,000 acres. Voters who elected them have also had to deal with the 300,000-acre Long Butte fire in 2010, and the 650,000-acre Murphy Complex Fire in 2007. Yet Simpson and Labrador oppose a carbon tax and oppose meaningful carbon regulations.
In Arizona, Sen. John McCain joined many members of the Western Congressional Congress in opposing the key 2009 "cap-and-trade" bill. McCain's state got hit by the 538,000-acre Wallow Fire in 2011 -- the largest fire in Arizona's history, surpassing the 2002 Rodeo-Chedeski Fire, which had set the record at 468,000 acres. Arizona voters have been electing McCain to Congress -- first the House, and then the Senate -- since 1982.
These modern monsters are hugely expensive. A single wildfire can rack up more than a hundred million dollars of damage, and the total property damage from all of the fires now averages more than $1 billion per year. On top of that, the federal government now spends an average of more than $2 billion per year of taxpayer money on fighting the wildfires, and state governments spend an average of more than $1 billion. And beyond the monetary costs, the fires claim the lives of many firefighters as well as the lives of residents. Ecologically, the burned forests and sagebrush won't recover for many decades, if they ever do, given the trends of climate change. In yet another double-whammy, the fires convert the vegetation into more atmospheric carbon, yet another factor increasing the pace of climate change.
The main policy these politicians have for addressing the wildfires isn't practical on a large scale: They often vote for spending taxpayer money on thinning forests to reduce the risk, on behalf of loggers and people who choose to have houses in the woods, but we can't thin the forests fast enough and extensively enough to keep ahead of climate change.
All of this is in the vein of Thomas Frank's ground-breaking 2004 book, What's the Matter with Kansas? The book argued that conservative voters in that Midwestern state elect politicians who screw them over, and the argument was so compelling, the title of the book has become a slogan applied to many political analyses.
Democratic voters also elect politicians who screw them over, of course. Those examples include the deregulation of banks and Wall Street, a key factor in the current burst-bubble economy, as well as the impractical portion of our regulations and social-welfare programs, and the unsuccessful Vietnam War, which our nation got into under the leadership of Democrats in Congress and the White House.
But as the Democratic voters and their politicians see the monster wildfires -- in their districts and everywhere else -- generally they recognize that the flames are linked to climate change. The disconnect in the conservative districts makes climate change a partisan issue, and it prevents meaningful action on the crisis.
Meanwhile, scientists predict that worsening climate change will drive more and more monster wildfires, especially in the West. A recent National Research Council study says that for every degree Celsius (1.8 degree Fahrenheit) of temperature increase, the size of the area burned in the Western U.S. could quadruple. I wonder, when will the conservative voters make the connection?
Ray Ring is an HCN senior editor based in Bozeman, Montana.
The Black Forest Fire photo is a U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jonathan C. Thibault, released by the Fort Carson Public Affairs Office, via Flickr user DVIDSHUB.