Climate Change is Supercharging Western Forest Fires — Underpaid Firefighters & Overstretched Budgets

by Duane Nichols on July 25, 2021

Bootleg Fire in Oregon is too large and hot to contain

President Biden announces more resources for tackling wildfires, but experts say a new approach is needed

From an Article by Sarah Kaplan, Washington Post, July 1, 2021

Heat waves have toppled temperature records across the nation, and firefighters are actively battling 48 large blazes that have consumed more than half a million acres in 12 states. But land management agencies are carrying out fire mitigation measures at a fraction of the pace required, and the funds needed to make communities more resilient are one-seventh of what the government has supplied.

“We’re burning up, we’re choking up, we aren’t just heating up,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) told President Biden at a meeting with Cabinet officials and Western governors Wednesday. “Across the board we have to disabuse ourselves of the old timelines and the old frames of engagement. … We can’t just double down.”

Yet fire experts say the escalation of wildfires, fueled by climate change, demands an equally dramatic transformation in the nation’s response — from revamping the federal firefighting workforce to the management of public lands to the siting and construction of homes.

“As our seasons are getting worse and worse … it feels like we’ve reached a tipping point,” said Kelly Martin, a wildfire veteran and president of the advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. “We need a new approach.”

The West’s hot, dry start to summer has already been devastating, to people as well as trees.

On Thursday, authorities across the Pacific Northwest and western Canada said they were investigating at least 500 suspected deaths from heat illness that occurred amid the week’s record-shattering temperatures.

Thousands of residents had to be rapidly evacuated from the sprawling Lava Fire, south of the Oregon-California border, when extreme heat and strong winds caused the blaze to explode.

Many people are still missing after a fast-moving wildfire overwhelmed the tiny mountain village of Lytton, British Columbia, on Wednesday — just a day after it notched Canada’s highest-ever temperature of 121 degrees Fahrenheit.

“This is becoming a regular cycle, and we know it’s getting worse,” Biden said Wednesday. “In fact, the threat of Western wildfires this year is as severe as it’s ever been.”

‘Always doing more with less’

When Martin started her career with the U.S. Forest Service more than three decades ago, the agency had a “warlike” approach to handling wildfires. Crews used bulldozers and other equipment to cut through vegetation and create barriers that could contain an approaching front. Helicopters and big air tankers dropped retardant from high above the flames. Although land managers knew fire was an important part of most Western ecosystems, they were also under pressure to stop blazes before they reached the area’s growing population centers.

“And we were very successful at it,” Martin said. To this day, more than 95 percent of fires are suppressed before they reach communities.

But by the time Martin retired as chief of fire and aviation at Yosemite National Park last year, climate change had fundamentally altered the nature of wildfire, making the blazes that did escape containment increasingly costly and dangerous to fight.

In most forest types, the proportion of fires that are “high severity” (killing the majority of vegetation) has at least doubled in recent decades. Firefighters are seeing more and more “extreme fire behavior” — whirling “fire tornadoes,” crown fires that spew embers into the wind and blazes that move so fast and burn so hot they create their own weather.

In 2018, a veteran Redding, Calif., firefighter was killed when a vortex the size of several football fields swept down upon him as he evacuated residents ahead of the catastrophic Carr Fire.

“Watching what the current wildland firefighters are faced with, last year and this year, it is exponentially greater in terms of risk and trauma,” Martin said.

The U.S. government is the nation’s biggest employer of what are known as “wildland” firefighters. Most are temporary workers, their salaries as low as $13.45 per hour for a starting forestry technician. They spend summers traveling the country, working 16-hour days, 12 days at a time, often relying on overtime and hazard pay to make ends meet.

For decades, they’ve relied on a months-long offseason to rest and recover.

But now there is no offseason; one fire year simply bleeds into the next, as winter rain and snow is delayed and diminished by climate change. About 100 families had to be evacuated from the Santa Cruz mountains in January — usually California’s wettest month — when winds re-ignited the embers of a fire that started last August.

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