October 1, 2021 | OPINION | By Isabel Hicks | Photo courtesy of the author

In early August, the fires came. I was living in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley the summer of 2020 when a wildfire erupted in Glenwood Canyon and grew to thousands of acres overnight. 

We all knew it was coming. 

That July, I reported on the drought and how the American West was seeing its worst fire conditions in decades. I interviewed fire chiefs for a story I published in Carbondale’s local newspaper, and they warned people not to use fireworks over Fourth of July weekend. 

After a deceptive two-week period of cloudy days and cold weather, the temperatures grew warmer yet again — until suddenly the Grizzly Creek fire was tearing through a canyon only 10 minutes away from me. A partially lit cigarette tossed out a car window had met the Colorado drought. 

The fire was quite literally on the edge of the highway. A 57 mile stretch of I-70 was closed for two weeks from Glenwood Springs to Gypsum as firefighters tried to contain the burn. The fire happened the day before I was supposed to go back home to Denver. Because of the I-70 closure, what was supposed to be a three-hour drive turned into an eight-hour one. Ultimately, I decided to stick it out and wait for the fire to become contained enough so the highway could reopen. 

I spent that time watching the mountains and forests I’d come to love that summer burn down. I have never felt more helpless. 

2020 was abnormal in a variety of ways but one particularly striking aspect was the extreme number of wildfires that season compared to other years. It was a record setting year in many regards. The simple fact is that our global temperatures are continuing to soar, and the world is falling into perpetual drought. 

Droughts predicate wildfire in that they lower the moisture content in trees, which allows fire to burn faster and spread more easily. In addition, as climate change leads to a greater frequency of more extreme weather events, strong windstorms spread fire even faster over unimaginably vast areas. 

It is clear why water allocation has become such a contentious issue in the American West. In 2018, when a horrific fire struck Basalt, the Town of Carbondale voluntarily reduced its water usage by 50%. While that is significant, it is also useful to examine which players are using more than their fair share of water in the first place. 

A clear culprit is industrial agriculture, specifically the agriculture of animals. Over 600 gallons of water go into creating just one hamburger. All the water we use doesn’t even go to our food; it goes to growing food for the animals we then kill and eat. Talk about inefficiency. So, let’s remember who’s really at fault for the drought — your 20-minute shower or the meat industry. 

In order to meaningfully address the climate crisis, we have to start with our food system. In addition to far exceeding sustainable water usage, industrial agriculture produces a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

A massive share of emissions come from the transportation of food from where it was grown to supermarkets across the country. Only a few farms are big enough to produce on an industrial scale, and they use industry shortcuts — monocultures, pesticides, fertilizers, genetically modified foods, antibiotics, hormones — all technological innovations meant to defy nature but instead actively harm it. 

The future needs to shift away from industrial agriculture, but how? By actually caring for and working with the land — you’d be surprised with the results. So many people in the Roaring Fork Valley have succeeded for years at providing food to the local community. People are starting home gardens and trying to grow their own food in the pandemic. They are learning the value of cover cropping and pesticide-free agricultural practices that restore soil health rather than erode topsoil that regrows at a rate of one inch every hundred years

Even starting a garden in your backyard boosts soil fertility and sequesters carbon. Did you know that you can plant garlic in the fall, and it grows underground, even under snow in the wintertime, and then you harvest it come summer? If you don’t have an outdoor plot of land, you can grow herbs on your windowsill year-round. Currently, I grow my own mint, basil and parsley on the window above my kitchen sink. 

If we each took a step toward localizing agriculture and minimizing our support to industrial companies, the world would be in a better place in terms of water usage to fight fires. 

Industrial agriculture is purposefully designed to remove the consumer from the source of their food. Now, I’ve come to realize that seeing the plant’s origin story is the best part of eating. It’s time to pursue that feeling and start using our water to grow food for people to eat, not animals. Only then will we have enough water to allocate to fighting fires as their frequency increases with global warming. 

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