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Cadillac desert

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When I moved to Boulder 31 years ago, the median price of a single family home in the city was $125,000 ($264,000 in 2021 dollars). This April, the median — the median, not the average — price of a single family home in the city was $1.56 million.

31 years ago, Louisville (pronounced “Lewisville”), a tough old mining town about three miles to the east of the Boulder city limits — it was the site of much labor violence between the largely Italian-American coal miners and the mine owners at the turn of the previous century — was already morphing into a suburb of Boulder-Denver. (Denver is about 25 miles to the southeast). As Boulder grew more expensive, Louisville’s population went from 2,400 in 1970 to nearly 20,000 today.

Meanwhile the town of Superior, just across the highway, grew from 255 people in 1990 to a sprawling series of tract subdivision developments, which are (or were) home to about 13,000 people as of yesterday morning.

These towns are supposed to be the “affordable” housing options for people priced out of Boulder, as median single family home prices in Louisville are about half of what they are in Boulder itself. But half of $1.56 million is still a lot of money, so people are pushed into the even more affordable tract homes across the highway in Superior, where the median price is around $600,000 etc. etc. etc.

Colorado is a semi-arid climate during “normal” times, except of course the normal times are gone and they ain’t coming back. Over the past few months we’ve experienced the most severe drought in the recorded history of the Denver-Boulder area, with basically no precipitation at all since the middle of the summer.

Earlier this month we spent a couple of days in Breckenridge, a ski town just on the other side of the continental divide. We were staying in a cabin about 1000 feet above the city, which itself is at 9500 feet. So we were very close to the timber line. There was no snow. Near the timber line in Colorado. In December.

When we drove back, we came out of the Eisenhower tunnel (11,100 feet), and were greeted by the sight of a desert. Again, no snow, all the way from the top of the Rockies down to Denver 40 miles and 6,000 feet below.

Yesterday morning, the wind began to howl. The fire started a mile to the south a few blocks to the east of our neighborhood on the eastern edge of Boulder (This is the “affordable” part of Boulder itself. The median price of a house in the more fashionable Newlands neighborhood — a 1950s tract home development that was still full of 1200 square foot bungalows owned by actual working class people when I moved here 30 years ago — is now $2.8 million). Within three hours it had completely destroyed the Louisville neighborhood that had been our previous home, and is — or was — home to several of our friends.

It’s funny — not really — how something like a wildfire remains an abstraction until it comes home to you, or at least to me. I thought of wildfires as something that happened in California, and Oregon, and in the foothills a few miles west of Boulder. But it’s not like the Costco and the Target down the street are going to burn down. Then yesterday they did.

This summer I was running on the Davidson Mesa — a beautiful trail run on the mesa overlooking Boulder, on the western edge of Louisville — and I couldn’t see the Flatirons because of the smoke from California and Oregon and Washington. The Flatirons are three thousand foot tall slabs of rock that are five miles away from the trail.

This is the climate change future, except the future is now.

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