Wildland firefighting at the rough cutting edge of climate change


Wildfire“Western firefighters are more often encountering conditions they have never before experienced, with extreme fire behavior and extreme weather conditions,” writes former U.S. Forest Service firefighter Nick Sundt. “Many of our elected representatives in Washington are napping on the fireline. They need to wake up and smell the smoke.”

The following is a guest post by Nick Sundt, a former U.S. Forest Service firefighter, who worked as a hotshot, smokejumper and helitack crew member from 1976 to 1990:

Late Sunday (30 June), 19 firefighters died in the Yarnell Hill Fire southwest of Prescott Arizona. All of them were members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew; a hotshot crew consists of 20 firefighters, so nearly the entire crew was killed.

Current and former firefighters receive this news in a deeply personal way.  It could have been me, or it could have been my colleagues.  What happened and why? What did they experience, think and do as the fire blew up?  Could it have ended differently?  Would I have reacted differently? Can we learn from it?  How can we honor them?  Those and other questions will persist like the smell of smoke long after the fire is out.  So will a deep sadness and sympathy for those they left behind – including the solitary survivor of the crew.

As with other wildfires that have taken the lives of firefighters, investigators will find that the tragedy resulted from a combination of circumstances.  Weather certainly was a factor. Isolated thunderstorms were forecast by the National Weather Service for the area around the fire that day.  And where those storms were developing and moving, “strong and gusty winds” were forecast.  Furthermore, those winds could quickly shift, and could unexpectedly push the fire into unburned fuels while driving heat, flames and smoke towards firefighters.

Just as important, the forecast called for temperatures between 100 and 103 F.  The nearby Prescott Airport saw a maximum temperature of 102 F that day, tying the record previously set in 1950. Years of rising average temperatures and more frequent high temperature extremes have kept the Southwest in drought since the turn of this century.  Nearly three-quarters of Arizona now is in severe or extreme drought.

Western firefighters consequently are more often encountering conditions they have never before experienced, with extreme fire behavior and extreme weather conditions.

Wildland firefighting always has been a dangerous profession, but firefighters now find themselves at the rough cutting edge of climate change. When the southwest last year faced similar fire conditions, I wrote the op-ed “To Politicians Napping on the Fireline: Wake Up, Smell the Smoke and Act on Climate Change” It is as relevant today as it was a year ago.

While we’ve seen progress on climate change in Washington since then, it is nowhere near the response required to address this problem that is putting lives, property and our future at risk. As I said a year ago, “many of our elected representatives in Washington are napping on the fireline. They need to wake up and smell the smoke.”

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A note yesterday from a friend in Prescott, Arizona:

The town is mobilizing assistance in every way, and scores of businesses are contributing whatever they sell, sponsoring events, etc.

I have attended three memorials this afternoon and evening, another tomorrow evening, and the large and “official” ones have not begun.

A very effective presentation today came from a Phoenix firefighter who grew up here in town. Among many direct, helpful, considerate, and pragmatic statements, he stressed that firefighters are GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, work unbelievably long hours at difficult and dangerous jobs, and are grossly underpaid. Far more significant, they have been cut to the bone by budget cuts, downsizing the government, sequester, etc.

These deaths are in part due to the anti-government stance that is so popular here in Prescott and northern Arizona.

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Earlier post: Federal budget sequestration begins to undercut extreme event preparedness

The 2013 wildfire season finds the government facing cutbacks in firefighters, equipment, fire prevention, and recovery, as a result of federal budget sequestration cuts.

Also see these excellent posts:

Andrew Freedman at Climate Central: The Climate Context Behind the Deadly Arizona Wildfire

Joe Romm at Climate Progress: NY Times Explains Climate Change Drives Record Wildfires, But Fails To Explain What Drives Climate Change

Chris Tackett at Treehugger: Yes, wildfires are connected to climate change. Here’s how.

Chris Mooney at Mother Jones: Does Climate Change Make Western Firefighting More Dangerous?



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