2021 Colorado Wildfires: When, Why, & How to Stay Safe

This is part of a series on wildfires, heat waves, and power outages in Colorado that walks through the role of climate change, how to stay safe, and what policymakers can do. Read more about Colorado Heat Waves here and Power Outages in Colorado here

A single-engine air tanker (SEAT) drops retardant ahead of the Oil Springs Fire on Wednesday, June, 23, 2021, in an effort to protect oil and natural gas infrastructure south of Rangely, Colorado. Photo by Geoff Liesik, BLM

Originally published on NRDC Expert Blog.

By Ariana Gonzalez  Sam Gilchrist  Vijay Limaye 

More frequent and intense wildfires in Colorado are a clear sign that the climate crisis is here. Keep reading to learn more about how climate change is fueling stronger wildfires across Colorado, what you can do to keep yourself and others safe and healthy, and what your elected officials can do to ensure a livable state for today’s residents and generations to come.

How Climate Change is Fueling Colorado Wildfires

Climate change is already leading to a hotter and drier Colorado. In the past thirty years, the state’s average temperature has risen by two degrees Fahrenheit. While this may not sound like much of an increase to some, this warming is already having effects on our climate and health, resulting in drought conditions that set the stage for enormous wildfire risks starting earlier in the spring and lasting later into the fall. After 2020 wildfires burned more than 935 square miles of Colorado land, Governor Polis described wildfires as a “year-round phenomena” rather than a seasonal issue. And it’s not just Colorado: globally, 77 percent of countries experienced an increase in human exposure to wildfires between 2015-2018, compared to 2001–2014.

How Wildfires and Smoke Impact our Health and Safety

Many Coloradans are all too familiar with the dangers of wildfires and the challenges of evacuation. Every year, people are injured and lose their lives due to wildfires, and even those who are able to safely evacuate face risks upon return. There can be injuries during the post-fire clean up, water quality issues associated with melted plastic pipes, and mental health implications from the trauma.

Breathing smoke from nearby wildfires also results in negative health impacts. This smoke includes many harmful contaminants including fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), one of the deadliest air pollutants known to humans. Research shows that health consequences can include respiratory infections, cardiac arrest, lung cancer, stroke, low birth weight, mental health conditions, and exacerbated asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Even just one hour of smoke exposure can affect our lungs and hearts, and these consequences can reach people far beyond the direct area endangered by the fire. A NRDC study found that the area affected by wildfire smoke in the United States can be nearly 50 times larger than the area burned directly by fires—a phenomenon many Coloradans can confirm anecdotally, looking up at smoky skies from wildfires many miles away.

According to a recent NRDC-led study, Colorado wildfires and smoke exposure led to 174 premature deaths, 1,432 emergency room visits, 256 hospital admissions, and $1.6 billion in total health costs in one year alone. Children, older adults, pregnant women, people with preexisting cardiopulmonary disease, communities of color, economically disadvantaged communities, and people with preexisting chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes, and obesity are all especially vulnerable to the air pollution that wildfires cause. NRDC research also shows that wildfire smoke represents a major occupational health risk for firefighters and other outdoor workers.

How to Stay Safe during Wildfire Season

From the Environmental Protection Agency’s wildfire smoke guide to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance on reducing health risks from wildfire smoke, there are many places to turn for information. A few essential tips include:

  • Prepare for wildfires by confirming community evacuation plans and gathering emergency supplies
  • Monitor the news about current evacuation orders and following the instructions of local officials about when and where to evacuate
  • Check local air quality data and keeping an eye on news and health warnings about smoke
  • Protect yourself during fire cleanup, which can expose you to ash and chemicals that can irritate your eyes, nose, lungs, or skin

What Colorado’s Elected Officials Can Do

The good news is that Colorado legislation passed in 2019 that calls for reducing carbon pollution by at least 90 percent of the levels of statewide greenhouse gas emissions that existed in 2005 by 2050. By reducing carbon pollution, Colorado can help reduce the likelihood of severe climate impacts, including more severe wildfires. However, meeting this threshold will require tackling every polluting sector, from the cars we drive to the furnaces and water heaters in our homes to the electricity we use to power our lives. While the movement in favor of these actions is growing—from young people to health professionals to social justice advocates—the fossil fuel industry and their affiliated lobbyists are voraciously campaigning to delay climate action.

Following a busy legislative session in which our representatives passed bills to reduce emissions in the building and transportation sectors, we’ve got more work to do. For example, over the summer, the Transportation Commission of Colorado will develop new rules that we hope will prioritize investment in sustainable transportation that supports healthy communities while cutting existing air pollution and traffic and limiting the pollution that can result from new transportation projects. We’re also excited to work with our utilities to create new programs that will help Coloradans upgrade to efficient electric appliances, furnaces, and water heaters that keep their bills low and air clean.

As we explore and implement these solutions and many more, one thing is clear: the time for incremental change has passed. We are calling on our state leaders to get to work implementing the policies we need to radically reduce carbon emissions and pollution, especially for the low-income communities and communities of color that experience the worst of these crises. Delaying action will only lead to more extreme weather and wildfires, to dirtier air, and to other climate change impacts that put the lives of all Coloradans at risk.

Featured Image from NASA series, The New Normal

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