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‘A mammoth of change’: Firefighters brace for life amid climate change, burnout

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Due to the effects of climate change, many firefighters are anticipating difficulties in fighting fires that may be more intense than historical fires. For example, the fire season is lengthening in California due to dryness.


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JULY 21, 2022

California — a land of promise cropping with supposed overnight successes — has long held an allure for buzzing personalities and social pariahs. Millions flocked to the Golden State throughout the 20th century, some touting its blissful Mediterranean climate as a panacea for the stresses of daily life.

But in chasing the sun, humans have increasingly encroached on nature, settling in wildfire prone areas. Combined with a history of fire suppression and anthropogenic spark ignitions, these ingredients form a recipe for cataclysmic wildfires as the world continues roasting under climate change (see Europe).

“In the Bay Area, the vast majority of fires are human caused,” said Scott Stephens, UC Berkeley professor of wildland fire science. “Many of our ecosystems — the oak woodlands and the mixed evergreen forest — have profoundly changed in the last 200 years plus and (have become) more vulnerable to severe fire behavior.”

Fire is integral to maintaining California’s ecosystems as the state’s seasonally dry climate naturally creates an abundance of dry fuel that primes the terrain for wildfires, according to Brandon Collins, campus environmental science, policy and management adjunct professor.

While the fire season typically lasts about four months, that period is lengthening as climate change is fueling more dryness through a lack of precipitation and increased heat. Blazes have scorched through southern California in December and run amok in the mountains during November, making it increasingly difficult to place bounds on the wildfire season, Collins said.

Given the lower temperatures and higher relative humidity of the fall and winter, the Bay Area experiences a break in fire activity for several months, Collins noted. But Californians are no strangers to the vicissitudes wrought by climate change and the drought over the last two years has sparked uncertainty and angst over the fate of this year’s fire season, and those to come.

“This drought is something that’s always on our mind from a fire behavior standpoint,” Stephens said. “Hopefully we get out of this maybe next year, but of course, we don’t know.

Fighting fire with fire

On July 13, 2021, the Dixie Fire emerged in the Central Valley, burning more than 960,000 acres across five counties.

One year later, climbing to the peak of Mount Hough overlooking the fire’s footprints, Stephens said he could not see a trace of land untouched by the disaster. With a high severity fire like this one that killed thousands upon thousands of acres of trees, the vegetation will likely never return to its original state as a forest, Stephens lamented.

“What are we leaving to our grandkids?” Stephens remarked. “Instead of a forested landscape, we’re going to really leave more of a shrub system over thousands of acres.”

For millennia, native peoples managed the lands of the Bay Area for various endeavors, from basket weaving to spiritual rituals, according to Stephens. Speaking with local indigenous leaders and elders, Stephens said they partook in “active stewardship,” conducting small, intentional burns to decrease the risk of large wildfires.

Essentially, indigenous peoples would light the forest on fire to decrease the high density of vegetation and dead material that acts as wildfire fuel. When European colonizers forcibly removed native peoples from their homelands, they extinguished these practices.

Planting its seeds in federal policy from the 1900s, California’s legacy of fire suppression has left the state with dense, homogeneous forests.

Without low intensity fires keeping vegetation in check, forests become swallowed in tightly packed trees as fuel piles up on the ground, Collins said. These dense forest systems are a fertile ground for intense wildfires that can reach the crowns of the tallest trees, he added.

“The condition that the forests are in and the potential for wildfires is not new, we’ve known about this for decades,” Collins said. “It’s frustrating that we aren’t able to be more proactive.”

To restore the world’s ailing forests and reduce the risk of wildfires, Collins said there needs to be more intentional, or “prescribed,” burning. The current pace and scale of prescribed burns pales in comparison to the magnitude of the problem, he noted.

Collins said there is a quicker process, tree cutting, which yields more immediate results in terms of eliminating fire fuel. With tree cutting, however, comes reluctance. People tend to regard this effort as unnatural and thus — by extension — unhealthy, according to Collins.

“People see it as, ‘nature would never do that, so why would we?,’ ” he said. “Nature would have done it had fire been part of the system. Fire would have never let those trees establish in the first place.”

With millions of acres in need of active stewardship, Stephens said it will be a daunting restoration process because once people begin, it never ends — the forest and shrubs will always grow back.

Tangible change rests on building a better relationship with nature and emulating the practices of native people tending to their land indefinitely, Stephens said.

“Native people just do this forever, they just continue to steward, steward, steward,” Stephens said. “Stewarding ecosystems for the future is going to take an incredible change in mindset and shift in resources to try to employ people in these areas. It’s going to take a mammoth of change.”

Though still optimistic, Stephens’ hope is slowly withering the longer he looks out the window and watches forest systems change.

Back in 2007, the Moonlight Fire — burning approximately 65,000 acres — blew Stephens’ mind. Standing in Greenville last month, one of the towns burned down by the 960,000-acre Dixie Fire, Stephens said it felt haunting.

The blaze scorched through every home, all that survived is a high school and one small, older grocery store, he said. There appeared to be one newer building, it may have been a dollar store, Stephens recalled.

“I used to say about 20 years ago ‘some day, the forests are gonna change right in front of our eyes,’ ” he said. “It’s already happening. … So the question is, are we going to engage with this and try to do something or are we going to just continue to watch?”

The fetters of federal firefighters 

Towering over avid free soloists, engulfing the ambitious hikers lugging water bottle filled backpacks are hundreds of giant sequoia trees in Yosemite National Park.

Now, the latest Washburn Fire is imperiling a grove of these century-old trees.

The fire, fueled by timber and brush, has blazed more than 3,500 acres to date. As devastation grips California, people’s eyes remain fixed on a 3,000-year old tree named the Grizzly Giant that is among the more than 500 mature sequoias in the threatened grove.

For over a decade, Kelly Martin worked as the chief of fire and aviation management in Yosemite National Park. When her career as a firefighter began about 35 years ago, she didn’t have to run into the flames of the massive wildfires spreading today — these fires simply didn’t exist.

With climate change, she noted, what began as a tenable profession has mired into a job with mounting trade-offs and unknown health consequences.

“I just absolutely believe in public land management and fire just happened to be my tool of expertise,” Martin said.

Fire, she said, is also one of the only tools that can be used to reduce the high density of trees and abundant fuel that serves as kindling for fires. The U.S.’ history of fire suppression — exterminating a natural element of the landscape — has set ablaze a future of massive wildfires.

Yet to this day, even in Martin’s close circle of friends, many still regard fire as the enemy.

Getting dropped off by helicopter in remote areas across the country on a whim and hiking miles into fires is where Martin learned about the value of fire on land.

“I was not very interested in the fact that we had to go out and suppress all fire, I was most curious about how fires were beneficial,” Martin said.

Beyond navigating steep environmental topographies and the uncomfortable brunt of heat, smoke, dust and wind, many firefighters are also ensnared in mental and financial strains.

Years ago, Martin said people would engage in firefighting as a summer job; it wasn’t considered a formal occupation. Today, society depends on this workforce to save lives, but the infrastructure of human and physical capital to pay for this labor has not kept pace with the public demand for service, she noted.

Last summer, President Joe Biden increased the minimum wage for federal wildland firefighters to $15 an hour, with most entry-level firefighters previously making $13 an hour. The bulk of these workers remain in a lower tier, likely not earning over $20 an hour, Martin said.

Firefighters are feeling burnt out, she added, ripped apart from their families for months at a time when it used to be only for weeks. Their mental health is further crumbling under the weight of California’s high cost of living as they struggle to make ends meet, Martin said.

“We should never be in that kind of situation where the people that we rely on most to protect life in our community actually have to pay to do this work,” Martin said. “It’s really unsustainable from a financial and mental health perspective.”

The federal wildland firefighters operating on the front line, Martin alleged, are also not paid equitably compared to their counterparts in state and city fire departments. Federal entry level wildland firefighters earn about 50% less than those working for Cal Fire, according to Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an organization advocating for federal wildland fire personnel of which Martin presides over.

Recently selected to serve as members of the Biden administration’s Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission, Grassroots Wildland Firefighters is currently backing the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act. The bill would be a trailblazer in providing increased mental, financial and physical health support for firefighters into retirement.

“We will now have a voice at the table with elected officials and with the current administration to hopefully further opportunities for reforms into the future,” Martin said. “Our work is all volunteer, none of us are paid, so it’s really a labor of love because we know that we’re actually seeing changes that were very difficult to endure as working employees.”

The bill has garnered support from the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation as it includes presumptive coverage for cancer, a protection already enjoyed by state-employed wildland firefighters.

By the nature of their job — being thrown into the very fires that darkened ash precipitating skies of the Bay Area with eerie, orange hues in 2020 — firefighters are exposed to carcinogens. Today, cancer is the leading cause of job-related death for firefighters in the United States, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters.

In light of this problem, Martin said firefighters are going to have to inhale more smoke in order to one day breathe less of it. Igniting prescribed burns will eventually reduce the potential for large mega fires and the harmful air pollutants and carcinogens they produce, she explained.

“We have to think creatively and bring in novel ideas about what the future workforce looks like in terms of who bears the cost and the burden of 100 years of fire suppression and climate change,” Martin said. “Is it really the firefighters that are least paid and least compensated that then face the most risk and consequences because of this job?”

Berkeley’s barrage of fire calls

In a city with far more people than homes, where it sometimes feels like the walls are closing in under seemingly unfettered growth and the bristling pressure to make room for more students, firefighters are feeling a different type of burnout.

Experiencing a rising demand for fire and emergency medical services from the public, Berkeley Fire Department, or BFD, is in the midst of inner-departmental changes as it tries to hire more personnel, said Matt George, vice president of Berkeley Fire Fighters IAFF Local 1227.

The clash between an increasing call volume and workplace transition period has left Berkeley firefighters playing catch up, George said, who has been a BFD firefighter for about eight years.

“Our city’s changing a ton: population is increasing, vertical growth is increasing and responses are also increasing year over year,” he said. “We’re just trying to push as hard as we can to keep up.”

While Berkeley firefighters do, in fact, get called for fires, a large share of their requests come from people who simply don’t know who else to ring. When not a police matter, or public works issue, the call usually falls to the firefighters; “we’re kind of a catch all,” George said.

A few days ago, George found himself, along with his peers, throwing up a ladder into a woman’s bedroom and climbing to the ceiling to change her smoke detector’s battery after she called complaining of its incessant beeping.

In a matter of seconds, before enough time has passed for the woman to fluff her pillows and curl into bed with a book, George could get called for a life-threatening emergency. This could look like a major fire on the cusp of Oakland, a boat erupting into flames in the bay or a rope rescue on a merry-go-round in Tilden Park, all of which happened in the past few weeks.

Berkeley firefighters must simultaneously navigate the city’s various crises, attending to narcotic use, overdose and houselessness, George said. This can sometimes act as a draw on their system, he added, as some people call in dire need of a defibrillator while others require a refill on their prescription.

But no matter the scope of the issue, George said he and his fellow firefighters strive to leave “no stone unturned.”

“It’s the best job in the world because it is varied, but it also carries a ton of responsibility,” he said. “We really take that to heart.”

The harrowing odyssey firefighters pursue when quelling disturbances is both physically and mentally demanding. It tugs uniquely at people’s heart strings, leading some to retire early while others have more nuanced effects, George said.

There’s an old firefighter adage about a backpack, George explained. At the start of one’s career, their bag is empty. In time, every mentally distressing call they receive adds weight to their sack.

To avoid the straps fraying from the bag and spilling all the internal baggage someone’s been carrying, George said BFD’s camaraderie and Peer Counseling Unit, or PCU, act to lighten the heavy load.

Bustling with audacious personalities and quirky talents, Berkeley’s firefighters are people persons, and George counts himself lucky to be one of them. They take care of each other like family, he said, engaging in “one way trades” to cover a comrade’s shifts if they’re dealing with a personal plight.

“Our guys will come in and work 24 hours not getting paid just to cover for somebody receiving treatment for cancer or whose family or kids are in the hospital,” George said. “Everyone always has each other’s backs.”

When George is able to share a meal with his colleagues at the station, the kitchen table is like therapy. It’s liberating, he said, being able to talk openly with his peers and digest some of their shared struggles.

If the trauma cuts more deeply, firefighters can talk to someone from the PCU as they’re stationed and on shift at all times, George noted.

As the pandemic and recession coalesced and the world seemed as though it was on the road to ruin, George said there were many roadblocks in BFD, not unlike industries worldwide.

Embroiled in this time, he said it was incredible to watch Berkeleyans head to the polls and support Measure FF, a 2020 ordinance increasing funding for emergency response, hazard mitigation and wildfire prevention through taxation.

“The citizens came out and basically said ‘we see the need, we see you guys recognizing the need and we see your solutions to it, here’s money,’ ” George said. “We’re so thankful for the support of the citizens.”

Contact Maxine Mouly at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @moulymaxine.

JULY 21, 2022

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