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'This is climate change in real time': how natural hazards exacerbated the Marshall Fire

Smoke plume from the Marshall and Middle Fork wildfires visible from Longmont on Dec. 30, 2021.
Henry Zimmerman/KUNC
Smoke plume from the Marshall and Middle Fork wildfires visible from Longmont on Dec. 30, 2021.

The Marshall Fire was, in many ways, precipitated by a perfect storm of climate threats we’ve experienced for decades in our region, primarily extreme drought we’ve seen since 2000. Dry conditions across the Front Range led to the Marshall Fire spreading quickly to suburban settings in Boulder County, with the help of dangerously high winds exceeding 100 miles per hour.

For many climate researchers, watching dramatic disasters like the Marshall Fire unfold reveals the effects of climate change in real time. This is the case for Louisville-based geographer and global climate researcher Lauren Gifford. Gifford’s home was spared, but this is the second climate catastrophe she's lived through in Colorado. Back in 2013, she dealt with historic floods while living in Boulder.

Over this last week and half, Gifford has been thinking about the compounding nature of climate change — how natural hazards come together to escalate threats. We speak with Gifford about the Marshall Fire, and how it connects to the climate crisis on a global scale.

I host and produce KUNC’s in-depth, regional newsmagazine Colorado Edition, which has me searching across our state for peculiar and impactful stories to bring to listeners, always with a focus on empowering the people who hear our show and speaking through them to our guests. I am also a big nerd about field recording and audio editing, my dedication to which I hope serves our listeners who care about audio as much as I do.
As a producer for Colorado Edition, I pitch segment ideas, pre-interview guests, craft scripts and cut audio. I also write tweets, build web posts and occasionally host.
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  • The wildland-urban interface — where structures built by people meet undeveloped wildland prone to fire — has always been the foothills along the Front Range. But Thursday's fire sparked next to thousands of houses that have sprouted up on the east side of the Rockies since the 1990s, said Jennifer Balch, a fire scientist with the University of Colorado Boulder.
  • The Marshall Fire that erupted in Boulder County on Thursday quickly became the most destructive in state history. Officials estimate nearly 1,000 structures have been destroyed. It was a rare occurrence for December in Colorado, but many experts say similar events will become more common, fueled by extreme climate conditions.