I spent the last week of October in Washington D.C. visiting family and friends. For a few days of my visit, it rained and rained and rained — a consistent and soothing wave of precipitation that just didn’t stop.
I’m no stranger to rain. I grew up in Virginia where afternoon showers would turn grassy fields from brown to green each spring. And I went to college in New Orleans where near daily deluges of rainfall would thunder in from above, drenching you from head to toe on your way to class.
Yet years later, the sound of the rain falling on the nation’s capitol felt foreign. I longed for that type of rain for our arid lands in Lake County, across Colorado, and throughout the entire American West.
The lands around us are living out an increasingly precarious existence. These days, any mixture of drought, heat, wind, dense vegetation, human error and lightning can turn Colorado’s forests and grasslands into a blazing tinderbox.
Often times, wildfire is a good thing, a natural process that coerces our forests into a collective rebirth. But when wildfire endangers human life and property, as it did across Colorado this past summer and fall, it becomes catastrophic.
When a smoky haze settled in Leadville in August after several large wildfires spread across the state, every county in Colorado was experiencing some level of abnormal dryness.
Three months later, Colorado’s U.S. Drought Monitor readings are even worse. Over three quarters of the state’s counties, including Lake, are currently experiencing severe, extreme or exceptional drought. And public lands and towns, such as the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Grand Lake, have been forever altered by flames.
Colorado is expecting a La Niña climate system this winter. This could mean relatively warm temperatures and little snow for Lake County, similar to the winter of 2017-2018. It’s a scary thought.
Last week, Lake County Open Space Initiative (LCOSI) met to discuss wildfire’s threat to Lake County. “How can our community be better prepared?” the group asked.
There are many answers: fuel reduction work like the U.S. Forest Service’s Tennessee Creek Project at Turquoise Lake, smart development away from the wildland-urban interface, long-term planning like that found in Lake County’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan, strong first responder capabilities, public education and more.
Wildfire vigilance is now a year-round task and it is encouraging to see such conversations happening locally in the off-season.
My visceral longing for an East Coast rain over our Western lands was impractical. Rain like that would be dangerous for our region, overwhelming steep mountainsides and municipal drainage systems, causing mud slides and floods.
But watching a three-day-long shower pitter-patter on the reddened oak outside my sister’s apartment? It spoke directly to the senses — a reminder of how our planet dictates where we live, how we live, and what our lives will look like moving forward.