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  • Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.
 

Wildfire Risk Shutters Boulder Climate Lab

27 June 2012 2:39 pm
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Zach Dischner

Threatening clouds. Smoke from the Flagstaff fire covers mountains west of Boulder in this panoramic photo taken Monday from a parking garage on the University of Colorado campus.

BOULDER, COLORADO—Scientific facilities were closed for the second straight day today as a 120-hectare wildfire continued to threaten the iconic Mesa Lab campus of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). The more than 200 employees there were evacuated yesterday when the fire, sparked by lightning, raged on Bear Mountain, a few kilometers up the canyon from their buildings.

The scientists and staff at the Mesa location—roughly 15% of the NCAR workforce—left work Tuesday afternoon when smoke from the blaze threatened to enter the ventilation systems for the computers. After engineers shut the air off, officials ordered the evacuation of the staff, who include weather and climate modelers. The roughly 1000 employees who work in the other two NCAR facilities have not been directly affected by the blaze, which firefighting crews and aircraft continued to battle this morning.

Offices were planned to open today at 10 a.m., but the shifting winds and a continually raging stubborn fire led officials to keep Mesa closed today, asking employees to work from home or at alternative offices. "The westerly winds are picking up, so they're just playing it safe," said NCAR scientist Greg Holland, who directs the lab's Earth System Laboratory.

Residential areas nearby have been given pre-evacuation orders. NCAR scientists, many of whom live in those neighborhoods, viewed the situation yesterday and today with a combination of weariness and confusion.

"We're not used to this—we don't know what's going to happen to our house, which is right down the street from [Mesa Lab]. Also we don't know about the air quality issue, and we're concerned about our kids," said Enrique Curchitser, an oceanographer visiting NCAR with wife and children this summer from Rutgers University. Curchister and a colleague from the lab, along with their families, were cooling their heels about 6 p.m. yesterday at the Southern Sun restaurant, a 5-minute drive down the hill from the Mesa Lab campus where they work.

Families in the neighborhood were seen yesterday and today filling the trunks of their cars with valuables and supplies and driving off. "I told Enrique I think we should pack up our stuff, just in case," said Curchister's wife, Randye Rutberg, a paleoceanography professor at Hunter College in New York City.

The Boulder blaze was just the latest wildfire to strike Colorado, which is facing record high temperatures after a warm winter that left little snowpack to moisten soil. Crews across the scorched state were battling more than 20 fires yesterday amid record high temperatures, and a fire more than 2000 hectares in size has caused the evacuation of 32,000 homes in Colorado Springs.

Holland left the Mesa Lab facility yesterday afternoon, packed some belongings into his car, and then returned to his office, where he said he felt "no immediate danger" although he and other officials were on the lookout for embers sparking new blazes.

In the long run, he said, he expects an uptick in wildfires in Colorado due to a warmer and drier climate there. Some forest near NCAR will be burned out, posing no wildfire threat to the lab for decades. But "there's plenty of brush left up there [near the lab] to burn," he said. So as crews fight the forest fire just outside NCAR's border, scientists at a facility that has enjoyed its idyllic perch along the Rocky Mountains for decades are wondering how severe the wildfire risk will be in the coming years.