In a burned-down neighborhood, Coloradans call on Biden to declare climate emergency
Suzanne Sawyer-Ratliff and her daughter had just begun to notice a change in the sound and scent of the air outside her home on the afternoon of Dec. 30, 2021, when they received an emergency alert on their phones. After living in Superior for more than 40 years, Sawyer-Ratliff had “five to 10 minutes” to evacuate from the path of the fast-moving Marshall Fire.
“Right here where we’re standing, just across the creek, is where my home has now been totally — everything has been raked away,” she said Tuesday, speaking alongside a group of Colorado activists who want stronger action on climate change from state and federal officials.
The sounds of excavators and other construction equipment could be heard throughout the neighborhood as Sawyer-Ratliff and other Marshall Fire victims stood among still-empty Old Town Superior residential lots, urging President Joe Biden, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and other leaders to declare climate change an emergency.
“You shouldn’t be in office if you aren’t willing to address the climate crisis,” said Carol Guerrero-Murphy, who also lost her home in the fire.
More than seven months after the historic blaze, which killed two people and destroyed 1,084 homes in Boulder County, little rebuilding has taken place. In Old Town Superior, some fenced-off lots are still full of charred debris, while others are fields of dirt with a few scattered adornments — a mailbox, the remains of a stone wall, an American flag at half-mast.
Beginning as a brushfire in the heat- and drought-ravaged foothills of south Boulder County, the Marshall Fire was driven east by high winds and quickly became an “urban firestorm,” scorching more than 6,000 acres of densely populated suburbs along the U.S. 36 corridor.
Biden visited the area a week after the fire and called the event a “blinking code red for our nation,” echoing a warning from U.N. Secretary General António Guterres following the release of another dire climate report by scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this year.
But despite reports last month that the Biden administration was considering a climate emergency declaration — a move that could grant the president broader authority to accelerate the clean-energy transition — the idea has reportedly been put on hold as Senate Democrats attempt to pass a scaled-down package of climate spending in a compromise with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Independent analyses estimate that the tax credits and other clean-energy investments in the compromise bill would put the U.S. on a path to achieving up to a 41% nationwide cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. That’s less than the 52% cut that Biden first targeted last year, and even less ambitious than the plans favored by many climate activists.
Along with members of climate activist groups like 350 Colorado, Marshall Fire victims on Tuesday spoke in favor of not just measures to boost renewable energy production, but also action to rein in new fossil fuel development in Colorado and elsewhere.
“It’s been frustrating and heartbreaking to deal with this disaster,” said Susan Nedell, another resident who lost her home in the fire. “But what really burns me up is the continued funding of the fossil fuel economy and lackluster transition to a clean economy.”
At the state level, Democrats in the General Assembly have passed legislation targeting a 50% cut in emissions by 2030, but environmental groups have faulted the Polis administration for delaying or withdrawing regulations aimed at meeting that goal.
Parts of Colorado, including the Western Slope, have warmed by more than 4 degrees Fahrenheit above their preindustrial averages, temperature records show. Such warming is the driving factor in the “megadrought” that has gripped the Colorado River Basin for the last two decades, shattering records to become the region’s most severe dry spell in 1,200 years.
Beginning with a rash of historic fires in 2002, all of Colorado’s 20 largest wildfires on record have occurred during the recent megadrought. With conditions expected to continue to worsen as temperatures keep rising, Marshall Fire victims warned Tuesday that there’s no predicting where the next disaster could strike.
“It could be any one of us standing here,” said Sawyer-Ratliff. “This is not something just because you live in the mountains near a lot of trees or something. No — here we were, in a rural-suburban area.”
“We’re living a different life,” she added. “And we all have to band together to take care of what’s going on, for ourselves, and for our children and grandchildren.”