Climate, Home

01 Jan 2022

For the past 6 years, I’ve taught High School students how to develop, train, and utilize their individual voices through coaching a Speech and Debate program. We’ve been successful (including one state champion debate team), but for some reason I’ve avoided using my own voice.

This hesitancy probably has many root causes. I’m really good at starting random projects and really bad at seeing them through to completion (or even launch). I’ve spent so long standing in the middle of situations, that it’s hard for me to pick a side. I have worried about professional backlash to me in my career as a software engineer. In the end, these are all just excuses.

It’s time for me to reshape my voice and lend it to the most important issue of my generation.

I grew up in the mountains of Colorado. I didn’t love living far away from everything, but I did (and still do) love the Rocky Mountains: the forests, the solitude you can find on a snowy, winter day, the wildlife, the delicate flora of high elevation flowers.

In the summer of 2012 (a month after I graduated high school), I was forced to pack my most important belongings into my car and prepare to flee those mountains as the Waldo Canyon Fire burned my home forests to the ground. That fire was fueled by many complicated factors, but one contribution to the spread was a historically hot summer. Three days into the fire, Colorado Springs experienced a record high temperature of 101F.

It took 17 days for the fire to be contained and in that time hundreds of homes and thousands of acres of forest burned. It was devastating. It was the most destructive fire in Colorado history.

The next summer, my family dealt with the aftermath of those forests being destroyed. Typical Colorado summer thunderstorms rained down on the burn scars and the ashen land turned quickly to mudslides. Those mudslides often cutoff traffic up Highway 24, stranding those of us who worked in Colorado Springs but lived up in The Mountains.

The rains weren’t enough to quench the drought-stricken landscape. In June of 2013, a fire started in the unincorporated community of Black Forest, just north-east of Colorado Springs. My Uncle fought this fire himself, saving neighbors by cutting defensive fire lines all around their properties. His home was saved when the Wescott Fire Protection District engine dedicated to my grandfather who volunteered there as an Assistant Chief, pulled up at the last minute.

It took 9 days for the fire to be contained and in that time over five hundred homes and thousands of acres of forest burned. It was devastating. It was the most destructive fire in Colorado history.

Fast forward years later and days ago, on December 30th, 2021, a grassfire started in the hills of my new home, Boulder County. My wife, son, and I were at Costco getting new glasses and restocking on some groceries when we started to notice a smell of smoke. With the high winds, we didn’t think much of it at first. Smoke isn’t unusual in the winter time in Colorado, as many people use wood-burning stoves or fireplaces for supplemental heat. Then as we got to the exit, we saw the world had turned brown, and black flakes were falling from the sky. We ran to our car, not wanting to expose our toddler to too much smoke. The winds ripped at everything around us, but my main focus was getting us home safely. It took us twenty five minutes to drive the three miles home, normally a ten minute trip.

When we got home, we put our toddler down for a nap and prepared for the worst. My wife packed our go-bags while I gathered our important documents and information on how the fire moved. It quickly jumped over Highway 36 and began to burn on our side of town. We watched from our windows as thick plumes of black smoke, one after another, erupted into the sky; a sure sign of structures and not grass burning. I mentally prepared for the worst, thinking we would never return to the home we were in the midst of renovating. For the second time in my life, I packed all my most important belongings into my car, but this time my family was forced to flee the encroaching flames.

The high winds carried embers and pushed fire fronts quickly across land that was the driest it has been since Colorado began keeping records.

It only took 1 day for the fire to be contained, but in that time up to one thousand homes and businesses were destroyed, along with thousands of acres of grassland, grazing land, and the open spaces I’ve spent the last almost ten years enjoying the beauty of. It is devastating. It is the most destructive fire in Colorado history.

My house still stands, but my home has burned.

In every Hunter’s Safety class in Colorado, they teach students the difference between conservation and preservation. When we preserve things, we attempt to sterilize them and maintain it as it is today. We save things without using them. On the other hand, when we conserve resources, we attempt to use them wisely - without depletion, overuse, or exhaustion. Conservation is required because humans can drastically impact the landscape faster than almost any other force of nature. We can overharvest and destroy entire ecosystems. We can exclude predators from areas and allow booming prey populations to devastate the ecosystem as well. Conversation as a science attempts to balance the natural world, while human efforts constantly tip the scales.

Winter winds in Colorado are not uncommon. High summer temperatures, forest or grassland fires, and even droughts are not foreign concepts in the high plains and mountains. But the rate of each of these things is accelerating. In the same way that humans can destroy entire species of animals, we have a unique ability to mold the climate of our world. And we’re doing a terrible job at shaping it into a form that will sustain us.

This would be a place that many make their case for the few holdouts that remain that believe anthropogenic climate change is not real. I’m not going to bother with those people right now. My heart is heavy for my home, my neighbors, and my world; the world my children will claim as inheritance. And so instead, I write this for the rest of us. Those like me just a few days ago who knew what we were doing; who knew of the slow burn, the boiling pot we were creating for ourselves but didn’t care enough to really do anything about it.

My last few nights have been long ones. There was panic from our limited view of the world provided by our doorbell camera. Where we could see flames over a mile away rear up behind neighbors homes but not know how close they actually were. This was all mixed with my overwhelming desire to act somehow or someway to save my home or help my neighbors. Eventually, I came to the realization that my skills are not the ones that will innovate our way out of our current situation. I am a Physicist by education, a Software Engineer by trade, a Climber, a Gamer, and a Gardener by hobby, and a Communicator and Educator by volunteering. We need more Material Scientists, Geneticists, Botanists, Chemists, Engineers, and Scientists of all disciplines who desire first and foremost to be Conservationists for our planet and to advance our scientific capacity to solve current problems. We need more Politicians and (though I’m afraid to admit it) Bureaucrats who are not afraid to craft and implement policies that will be unpopular with commercial interests, but will ultimately save our world. We need more Entrepreneurs to utilize market forces to pull carbon from the atmosphere, create sustainable businesses that conserve natural resources, and develop brands that influence human behavior for the better.

Perhaps I can use my voice to inspire some few number of those people. Perhaps you can too.

Life is resilient. We didn’t see a total collapse when early humans hunted Wooly Mammoths to extinction. Nor when we destroyed the Passenger Pigeons, Great Auks, Carolina Parakeets, Atlas Bears, Stellar’s Sea Cows, or any of the countless insect and plant species that were never even known enough to give names.

Life will continue if humanity irreversibly destroys the climate of our world. But billions of people will die. Hundreds of thousands of species will cease to exist. And though we may preserve memories, we will have failed to steward the environment we inherited. Pope Francis wrote it well in Laudato Si where he said:

The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others.

My conscience is burdened. In 2022, I’m going to dedicate my time, money, and the skills that I do have to conserving our climate.