Will the West Survive?
Credit: John Moore / Getty Images
After leaving Trenberth, I drive to my second appointment of the day, which happens to be in Colorado Springs. If Boulder, 40 minutes north of Denver, remains the state's liberal enclave (college town, home of the Naropa Institute, a kite store, and numerous jam-band-flyered kiosks), Colorado Springs, an hour and a half south of Denver, feels like Boulder's parallel-universe opposite world (bastion of conservative politics, home of Focus on the Family and the U.S. Air Force Academy, the place where the Taxpayer Bill of Rights was created, and, as one local political-science professor told 'Bloomberg News,' the "Tea Party before Tea Party was cool"). In 2009, Colorado Springs voters rejected the notion of raising property taxes, which had fallen 41 percent since 1990, to make up for revenue lost during the economic downturn, and so the city became a model of the new austerity, de-commissioning one-third of its streetlights, slashing the number of cops and firefighters, auctioning off both of its police helicopters, and halting maintenance of city parks. When the Waldo Canyon wildfire erupted in late June, jumping containment lines and flying down the slopes of the mountains at 65 mph, critics wondered if some of the destruction (and a rash of post-fire burglaries in the evacuation zone) might have been prevented by a properly staffed public-safety department. Police chief Pete Carey vigorously rejects this charge, describing the fire to me as a "once-in-a-lifetime catastrophic event."

But when I bring up the shortage of officers during a tour of the decimated neighborhoods with Sgt. Mark DeVorss, a Colorado Springs native and 24-year veteran of the police force, he treats the conclusion as self-evident. "The department was already short on officers before the economy tanked," he tells me. "And we lost 50 or 60 more since then." DeVorss has a mild, kindly deportment and wears his pants high on his waist. He drives me out past the Garden of the Gods, a majestic 240-acre park of rock formations that looks like something out of a Road Runner cartoon, to the "upper-upper-middle-class" suburbs (DeVorss' words) that burned. Luckily, the CSPD had evacuated most residents before the fire spread. A sharp wind had caught everyone off guard, speeding the burn along four hours' worth of projected checkpoints in only 40 minutes. Chief Carey was holding an outdoor press conference when he noticed all of the cameras swing away from him and toward the direction of the mountain, at which point he recalls thinking, "Oh, this can't be good."

Wildfires have become more dangerous not only because they are bigger and burn longer, but also because we've come to live differently. While the West of legend meant wide-open spaces and lonely homesteads, in reality, many aspects of today's West have become fairly indistinguishable from the rest of the country, particularly when it comes to the growth of cities and the attendant suburban sprawl that encroaches upon forests and exposes more and more homes and civilians to wildfire risk.

The Colorado Springs subdivisions destroyed by this year's fires once offered spectacular views. "America the Beautiful" was written by Katharine Lee Bates, a vacationing Wellesley professor, from the summit of nearby Pikes Peak. But now many of the trees lining the purple mountain majesties are black and fossilized, like a haunted forest from a children's book. And of course the houses where upper-upper-middle-class folk once enjoyed those views while sitting at their breakfast nooks are mostly gone. DeVorss steers his police SUV along the gently curving lanes wending their way through formerly picturesque developments with names like Mountain Shadows. Often all that's left of the houses are the foundations, and occasionally an erect brick chimney standing embarrassingly exposed. Amid the piles of ash and rubble, I spot a stack of folding chairs fused together, a metal fan, what looks like a refrigerator turned on its side, or maybe a stove. I see a set of stairs going nowhere: The rest of the house is gone. Cars left in driveways look blown open like firecrackers.

DeVorss squints at another melted, carlike object. "Looks like a Mustang," he says. He points out a home where an elderly couple who refused to evacuate both died. (They eventually attempted to flee, but their electric garage door wouldn't open.)

DeVorss doesn't remember many fires growing up. He says blizzards were always the bigger issue. Chief Carey, who moved out from Philadelphia in the Eighties, agrees, recalling the "hellacious" winters of those early years. During especially gnarly storms, soldiers from Fort Carson would transport snowbound officers in their all-terrain vehicles.

In the lobby of a hotel in downtown Colorado Springs, I meet Tim Leigh, a garrulous real estate broker and member of the city council. I'd reached out to Leigh because he's originally from Grand Forks, North Dakota, a city nearly wiped out by a flood in 1997. As with the Waldo Canyon fire, the flood had been precipitated by extreme weather events, but when I bring up climate change, Leigh grins broadly and asks, "First of all, do you believe in Area 51, aliens? Have you studied that stuff?" I confess that I have not. "My point is, when you say, 'Is it global warming? Is it the end of the Earth?' you might as well ask, 'Are there aliens in Area 51?' I'm not sure about that. I just read a report within the last week, and when you look at the data, at the actual temperatures, you can make a pretty compelling argument that we're not in a warming trend. We're in a cooling trend with an aberrant warm spot. But the long-term trend is generally down. That's really hard to get your arms around. I get that we're in a hot cycle, and I also get that we're dry, and viscerally, you want to say, 'Fuck yeah, it's hot out!' But the data doesn't trend that way, so do you believe the data or do you believe something else, just because your lawn is dry?"

I wish I could secretly Skype this conversation to Trenberth and make his head explode. But instead I nod impassively. Leigh does not deny that the long-range weather forecast for Colorado is continuous drought, and acknowledges that the water levels in the local reservoir are down about 45 percent, enough to get the city through another year, though after that, Leigh concedes, they'll have to think about buying water.

A waitress places a bowl of wasabi peas in front of us. Leigh grabs a handful, tastes one, makes a face, returns the rest to the bowl. He says he's going to tell me something people would probably kill him for saying: To a certain extent, he looks on the fire as an opportunity. The residents whose homes were destroyed would collect insurance money and get brand-new houses, while the Colorado Springs economy, which was devastated when the housing bubble burst, would receive a boost. "It's unfortunate, because you're drawing insurance proceeds from other parts of the country," Leigh says, "but that money is coming here, and it's employing local contractors, local laborers who need work, selling construction materials, all those folks who have to restock their houses. You hate to say it, but the tragedy creates a financial boon, to a certain extent."

Leigh understands that a long-term drought will change life in the West. "Politically, what I tell everyone in this town is that we might have to build a moat around this city and become somewhat isolationist," he says. "You have to interplay with the global economy. But, really, you work to protect your constituents, the local people, your neighbors, that kind of stuff. That's a horrible model! But I don't know what else you do. We can sit here and have four glasses of wine and really talk deep. I think aliens landed at Area 51. I think they're causing this."

It's worth noting that Leigh is willing to allow people to cross the moat on special occasions: By late June, for example, the 'New York Times' had reported that more than half of the federal firefighting resources had been sent to the state of Colorado.