The statements and opinions herein are
solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organizations or individuals associated with the author, past or present.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

What's wrong with this picture?

Climate change is the new normal. Adapting to climate change will be hard enough. 
The poor souls in Colorado Springs in those sprawl subdivisions simply should not have been put in Nature’s way. It’s not her fault, it’s ours.
What are the lessons for campus sustainability?
By Dave Newport

What's wrong with this picture? Incinerated subdivision in Colorado Springs.
It is truly sad so many people lost their homes—and some lost their lives—in the recent Colorado wildfires. We have friends in Colorado Springs at risk, friends in Ft. Collins fighting the fires and risking their homes, we had a fire break out in Boulder’s foothills that sent some of our friends packing, and we are sincerely concerned for everyone impacted by all the fires.

Our campus sustainability colleagues in Ft. Collins and Colorado Springs report that they and their homes dodged the bullet, they are fine, but that many of their friends and colleagues were not so lucky. Our Boulder colleagues are fine if unsettled. Our hearts go out to all. The loss of life and homes is awful.

We have written previously that these fires represent the front lines in the fight against climate change. While climate scientists are loath to directly connect any specific weather events to climate change, the overall trend of extreme weather events comports with the predictions of the IPCC. Floods, drought-induced wildfires, hurricanes, extreme temperatures are all part of the predicted pattern that we must adapt to as climate change progresses.

We know these things. These are the big drivers that will take a while to turn around. In the meantime, there are local contributors to these fires that we should be mindful of if we are to adapt to emerging realities.

Chief suspect here: urban sprawl.


Comparing the three cities adjacent to these fires reveals some disturbing facts. In the space of a week, three Colorado communities that are all directly nestled at the base of Front Range foothills saw their foothill forests go up in flames. The data so far:

Acres burned
Lives lost
Homes lost
Homes lost per thousand acres
Colorado Springs/Waldo Canyon
Boulder/Flagstaff Mtn.
Ft. Collins/High Park
* as of June 30, 2012

Of the three cities, Colorado Springs has clearly suffered the worst. Two lives lost. The most homes lost. Colorado Springs saw substantial losses in suburban subdivisions that were allowed in the foothills within city limits—and were connected to municipal services including water and sewer.

The fire in Ft. Collins covered four times as much area as the Colorado Springs fire. Less homes than Colorado Springs were lost total, and far less per 1000 acres. No dense suburban subdivisions connected to municipal utilities (water & sewer) were impacted. One soul lost his life.

The fire in Boulder happened in a forested foothills area only 2-3 miles from downtown. No homes or lives were lost.

Lots of factors influence the loss of property, the nature and extent of the fires, lives lost, and so forth. This is not a criticism of firefighters, people’s lifestyles, economic paradigms, or political perspectives. The above data are just the beginning of a full conversation.

However, the three cities certainly saw different outcomes, for different reasons. For instance, allowing high density housing in fire prone areas means there is a higher risk of significant impacts. Empirical studies and common sense confirm this.

We have learned this before. On the heals of the giant Hayman fire ten years ago, home growth slowed in Colorado forests, only to pickup anew in the last few years.  The years right after the Hayman fire would have been a good time to codify preventative measures into growth laws. Didn’t happen.

Boulder in the 1950s approved a “Blue Line;” an altitude above which the City would NOT provide water and sewer.  Along with a 35 acre per single-family home zoning density approved by Boulder County and among the nation’s most aggressive open space land preservation efforts, rural growth around Boulder is effectively frozen.

Notwithstanding the leapfrog development, gentrification, and other negative consequences of Boulder’s smart growth policies that are real, smart growth has mostly paid off for Boulder in many ways—lately in fire protection. This week, Boulder’s newspaper reported:

“Like many south Boulder residents, Tom Duncan said he's always known his house was in danger if a fire developed on the open space. At the same time, Duncan, who lives on View Point Road, near the Cragmoor Hardscrabble Trail, said the open space makes him feel safer. The city has a well-managed buffer between the mountains and homes.

"The Colorado Springs fire has made us more sensitive to what could happen, but I think we have different terrain," he said. "This is another value of all those dollars we've spent on open space."

Boulder spokeswoman Sarah Huntley said she doesn't want to give residents a false sense of security. Strong winds in the wrong direction could still change the course of the fire.

Colorado Springs, on the other hand, has become the 71st most sprawled city in the US—and its rapid expansion of urban services into outlying areas overextended city coffers and helped cause terrible economic impacts during the Great Recession that even impacted the City's ability to fight the fires. And now the Springs’ sprawl is on fire.

Ft. Collins in Larimer County has not implemented what some would call the “draconian” anti-growth policies seen in neighboring Boulder County—but found a happy median instead. Larimer County has a great open space program. Ft. Collins has largely made the key decision not to extend water and sewer up the hill, although exceptions can be made.  On the other hand, sprawl along the I-25 corridor in Larimer County has been profound. But they have largely kept sprawl out of the foothills where climate change propelled fire waits to incinerate sprawl.

In the aftermath of Ft. Collins’ massive fire, our sustainability colleague at Colorado State University has challenged us and her community to rebuild a sustainable future. CSU sustainability engineer Carol Dollard wrote on the GreenSchools listserv in late June:

“There is an effort afoot to help folks get the resources to rebuild sustainably.  I encourage you to tie in with those efforts if you want to help us out here on the front line.”

The NoCo Rebuilding Network site is:


What are the lessons for campus sustainability? Well, water conservation, long taking a back seat to energy conservation, should become much more profound on the nation’s campuses—especially here in the arid west.

Likewise, campuses have lots of intellectual, practical, and fiscal resources that can help leverage sustainable rebuilding efforts in their local communities. From volunteers working on Habitat homes to faculty planning, construction, and energy experts helping their local communities, campuses have lots of assets that can help.

Finally, residential campuses can model sustainable development themselves by providing as much on-campus housing for students, faculty and staff as possible. This helps build a strong campus community—and retard sprawl of student housing that puts pressure on a community and pushes single-family development further from town centers. And campuses that can provide housing for their lowest income workers model the best of sustainability’s promise to mitigate inequitable impacts on those least among us. And you get STARS points too…


Back in the day, Nature invoked fire to cleanse itself of flotsam and jetsam. We know fire is a natural and even highly desirable part of normal ecosystem management. That was Nature’s plan before climate change, before sprawl. These days, WE are the flotsam and jetsam. 

So, what’s wrong with this picture? Nature is not going to adapt to us; we need to adapt to Nature’s need for fire, keep the sprawl out of her way, or pay the price. The poor souls in Colorado Springs in those sprawl subdivisions simply should not have been put in Nature’s way. It’s not her fault, it’s ours.

Climate change is the new normal. Adapting to climate change will be hard enough. Having to protect high-risk sprawl communities also will add to our fiscal, emotional, and political burden.

As we look to rebuild, let’s focus on rebuilding to sustainability standards, not sprawl standards. In the climate adaption world a new equation is true:  Sprawl + climate change = toast.

Hat’s off again to the men and women firefighters on the front lines of the fires—and of climate change.  We are still awed by our sustainability colleagues who are giving it all every day.

Think of our friends. Pray for rain. Stay cool. 


-photos from the Denver Post

Friday, June 22, 2012

On the front lines of climate change--really. Godspeed, Carol

by Dave Newport
[see 2 updates below]

She never asked me to write this—no way.

Carol Dollard is a tough minded, hard driving, independent, Western women who works every day to make Colorado State University more sustainable—and with it, embed a lifelong legacy of sustainability in CSU students that will improve their lives—and our society.

She will likely be upset with me that I wrote this. But that’s the least of her problems.

Today, her house may be gone, her beloved Colorado is in flames, and upwards of 70,000 acres the natural environment she works so hard to protect has been vaporized.

And it ain't over yet, not hardly.

Today and every day for the last two weeks, Carol has also been on the front lines of climate change as a Volunteer Fire Fighter working to save her neighbors’ homes threatened by the largest fire in Colorado history, the High Park Fire.

Carol is a volunteer fire fighter and is out there fighting to save peoples' homes, lives, and the wild things we all love.

Normally, she's the sustainability/energy engineer at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins. Carol has worked tirelessly for decades to help make CSU a great and sustainable campus.

At last contact (6/19), Carol reported she and her family were fine, she had evacuated to her daughter’s house in Ft. Collins, and that as far as she knew, her family home in Rist Canyon was still standing—but there was still lots of fire in her canyon. At least one person died there.

I have not heard from Carol since. I am assuming she's OK... 

[Update 6/23/2012 7AM: Heard from Carol. She's OK. Her house is still standing--but not out of danger. Another of her friends lost their home last night. Carol appreciates our thoughts and prayers]

Today (6/21/2012) it was 102 degrees in Denver—an all-time record. Tomorrow through Sunday it’s supposed to be hotter. Humidity is very low. The fire is growing again.

We all know why.

Carol will no doubt be out there tomorrow fighting on the front lines of climate change—and this huge fire—because that’s the kind of person she is.

I live 10 miles from the fire, smell the smoke, think about what I am smelling, and think about Carol. We work at “rival” schools, so they say (CU vs. CSU). Not today.  We’re on the same team: the human race.

I gaze up at the air tankers and helicopters flying over my house (safe and sound) and struggle with the irony: Hmmm, burning fossil fuels to power aircraft that help quell a fire driven by the climate change that burning fossil fuels helped ignite to begin with…

Yes, I’m a buzz kill at parties. Sometimes I hate connecting the dots. But that’s what we sustainabilistas do.

Lately, some in Rio are talking about climate change and sustainability and, hopefully, making a difference.

Others of us are at work answering email, phone calls, going to meetings, and doing the best we can to advance sustainability on our campuses and within our students.

And then there's Carol on the front lines of climate change and sustainability helping people in the most profound way: survival.

I am humbled by Carol Dollard. She is huge. I feel small calling her a colleague.

Carol has a job advancing sustainability at CSU that sends her a check every month. Others of her fire-fighter colleagues are not so lucky. They have no income since the fire has displaced them from their job duties. Carol may have a home still standing. May not. Others have lost theirs.

They are all heros, period. Help 'em if you can.

Carol may be reached via email at:

Donations to support her fire-fighter colleagues can be made at through PayPal or send a check (payable to RCVFD) to:

Rist Canyon Volunteer Fire Department
Fire Relief Fund, PO BOX 2,
Bellevue, CO 80512

Contributions are tax deductible.

Read more about this horrible scene at:

Godspeed Carol.

[Update. Monday, June 25, 2012 10AM EST. Another of our colleagues, Linda Kogan, Sustainability Director at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs campus, was evacuated from her home over the weekend. The Waldo Canyon fire sprang up and quickly threatened Manitou Springs at the foot of Pikes Peak where Linda lives. Linda's home is OK and she was allowed to go back yesterday, according to Kevin Gilford, her assistant in the sustainability office of UCCS. Godspeed all.]