Firefighters Cope As Climate Change Radically Changes Their Jobs

“We are not first responders anymore. We are extended responders.”
A firefighter tries to control a back burn as the Carr fire continues to spread toward the towns of Douglas City and Lewiston
A firefighter tries to control a back burn as the Carr fire continues to spread toward the towns of Douglas City and Lewiston near Redding, California, on July 31, 2018.

The conditions in the area around Redding, California, were ripe for disaster on July 26. The Carr fire was already raging into its fourth day, and the temperature soared above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. The humidity dipped to just 7 percent, and after two months with no rain, everything was bone dry.

As evening set in, the wind kicked up. The fire exploded.

In less than two hours, two firefighters were dead. Don Smith, an 81-year-old bulldozer operator, was killed after rapidly moving flames overtook him in his machine. Jeremy Stoke, a 37-year-old fire inspector with the Redding Fire Department, was helping evacuate area residents when a massive, powerful fire tornado trapped and killed him. Five other firefighters suffered burns or other serious injuries.

An August California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection report detailed the “extraordinary fire weather conditions” that led to the tragic incident. The swirling fire plume generated wind speeds as high as 165 miles per hour, triggering the flames to move in “unpredictable and unusual” ways that “surprised many highly experienced firefighters,” the agency wrote.

The report stressed that the wildland firefighting environment is becoming “more extreme due to a combination of a changing climate, overly dense and dry fuels, changing weather patterns, and continued growth of communities into fire prone landscapes.”

California has always had a “fire season,” but smoke and flame have now become a near year-round ordeal. Gov. Jerry Brown famously declared last year that devastating wildfires are the Golden State’s “new normal.” But it’s still far from normal for the people on the frontlines of those fires, who say the changes have been sudden and startling. Fires are larger and more destructive, burn faster and behave in more erratic and unpredictable ways. And fires often continue to rage at night, a time when cooler temperatures historically provided an opportunity for crews to make progress. What was previously considered a “career fire” ― a large-scale event that a firefighter might expect to see only once in several decades on the job ― have become almost an annual event.

This spike in activity has stretched firefighting resources thin and brought increased health and safety risks to an inherently dangerous job.

“We are not first responders anymore,” Michael Mohler, deputy director of Cal Fire, told HuffPost. “We are extended responders.”

David Albright, a 43-year-old battalion chief at the Chula Vista Fire Department, remembers when a 4,000-acre fire was considered big. It was once “unheard of” for a blaze to take out 20,000 acres in a single day, he said. There were years when the Chula Vista Fire Department was not called in on a single fire outside their home county of San Diego.

The situation has drastically changed over his 25 years on the job. California now faces multiple megafires ― those larger than 100,000 acres ― every year. He now spends much of the summer in northern California, battling large infernos before returning to the southern part of the state to fight fall fires.

In late June, Albright found himself back in fire-ravaged Lake County, an area he’s come to know well in the last few years as the county has experienced several devastating blazes. He was the leader of a strike team of more than 20 firefighters called in to fight the Pawnee fire, which erupted June 23 near the community of Spring Valley, north of Santa Rosa. After days of violent activity, a break in the weather allowed crews to finally get a handle on what was then the state’s largest fire of 2018.

On a Wednesday afternoon, Albright’s team roamed a blackened hillside above the valley, dressed in yellow protective suits and armed with shovels and adze hoes. As the sun beat down and temperatures reached into the 90s, they searched for still-smoldering embers and dug trenches meant to prevent any additional flare-ups from spreading. Driveways along the road below led to the burned-out skeletons of cars and the twisted remains of peoples’ homes.

Firefighters battling the Pawnee fire noted how unusual it was to see a wind-driven blaze of that magnitude so early in the summer, taking it as a troubling sign that California was in for another busy, and likely deadly, fire season.

“Where are we going to be in July and August?” Albright wondered, standing among freshly charred trees and brush.

He didn’t know it then, but by August, Albright would be back in Lake County, several miles from where he was standing, fighting the largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history. He was one of the approximately 4,000 personnel dispatched to fight the Mendocino Complex fire, which started July 27 and ultimately torched an astonishing 460,000 acres ― an area more than 10 times the size of the District of Columbia. Several homes in Spring Valley that firefighters managed to save from the Pawnee fire in June were lost, according to Albright.

“California,” he said, “is just in a bad way right now.”

Cal Fire Division Chief Chris Anthony and David Albright, a battalion chief at the Chula Vista Fire Department, visit June 27
Cal Fire Division Chief Chris Anthony and David Albright, a battalion chief at the Chula Vista Fire Department, visit June 27 on a charred hillside in the Lake County community of Spring Valley, where multiple homes were destroyed by the Pawnee fire. 

Fire and smoke have turned many areas of California into an apocalyptic hellscape. Last October, a series of wind-driven wildfires, aptly named the Northern California “firestorm,” ripped through several counties. Fueled by hot, dry Diablo winds, the Tubbs and the Nuns fires ― the No. 1 and No. 7 most destructive wildfires in California’s history ― torched some 7,000 structures and 90,000 acres in Sonoma County.

In Santa Rosa, fire tornadoes flipped cars and uprooted trees. Mohler, who was on the scene, said fire ripped through the city “like a blowtorch,” reducing entire neighborhoods to ash. The damage in Santa Rosa alone was estimated at $1.2 billion.

In December, the Thomas fire ― a rare winter inferno fueled by powerful Santa Ana winds ― burned more than 280,000 acres and forced hundreds of thousands of evacuations in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. It stood as California’s largest recorded wildfire for less than a year, replaced by the Mendocino Complex.

Robert Szczepanek, a battalion chief at the Ventura County Fire Department, likened the Thomas fire to a plane crash. Firefighters vomited from breathing in the thick black smoke billowing off of houses, he said. Cars engulfed in flames rolled down the street. In his 30-year career fighting wildland fires, Szczepanek had never seen looks like those on the faces of people they rescued ― expressionless, like they’d accepted that they were going to die. The day the first broke out, his strike team rescued at least eight civilians trapped in homes in Ventura and nearby Wheeler Canyon.

By the end of 2017, more than 9,500 fires had burned 1.26 million acres, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. At least 43 people ― 41 civilians and two firefighters ― died and more than 10,000 structures were lost. It’s among the most destructive fire seasons in California’s history.

2018 could prove even more devastating than 2017. Six firefighters have died battling fires in California this year ― the highest number since 2008, according to SFGate. The state is also far ahead of where it was at this time last year, both in terms of the number of fires and acreage burned. As of Sept. 11, more than 6,000 fires had scorched nearly 1.5 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Now, Southern California is bracing for what is typically the most active part of its season.

Robert Szczepanek, a battalion chief at the Ventura County Fire Department, was among the more than 3,000 responders to the P
Robert Szczepanek, a battalion chief at the Ventura County Fire Department, was among the more than 3,000 responders to the Pawnee fire.

Wildfire in the West is a complex problem without a simple solution. For decades, firefighters have been successful at stamping out flames, suppression efforts that have ultimately left many forests overgrown. This accumulation of dense fuel allows fires to spread quickly. The growing number of people living in and around wildland areas is only making matters worse.

Then there’s the 13,000-pound elephant that the Trump administration refuses to take seriously. Scientists have shown that climate change is already contributing to the extreme fires raging across the West and that the effect on wildfires is expected to grow as climate change drives up temperatures and fuels droughts. A 2016 study found that human-caused climate change had doubled the amount of land that burned in Western forests over a 30-year period by significantly drying out vegetation.

In California, 129 million trees have died ― most of them in the Sierra Nevada range ― as a result of drought and bark beetle infestation. The five-year drought, which officially ended in April 2017, was made worse by anthropogenic climate change, scientists say. During a tour of fire-scarred Lake County, Cal Fire Division Chief Chris Anthony said unhealthy forests are a serious “ecological health issue” and the 2017 fire season came as “a huge wake-up call.”

“It is clear to me that firefighters are on the frontlines of climate change,” he said

A state climate assessment released last month estimates that the amount of land that burns annually in California will increase 77 percent by 2100.

Emily Smith and Chris Anthony, both of Cal Fire, overlook a fire-scarred mountainside in Lake County, California. 
Emily Smith and Chris Anthony, both of Cal Fire, overlook a fire-scarred mountainside in Lake County, California. 

As fires grow in size, speed and intensity, fighting flames can become all but impossible. Expecting firefighters to extinguish some of these megafires is no different than expecting someone to stop a powerful hurricane, Mohler said.

Cal Fire officials say they’ve had to change how they work. In the past, they were more likely to envelop a fire and fight it head on. But now crews are often forced to back further away and focus on evacuations. Both the state and the U.S. Forest Service have doubled their use of fire retardant since 2014.

With so many fires to fight during peak season, resources are often stretched thin, meaning officials must, as several explained it, “triage” incidents as best they can to protect human life and property. The San Francisco Chronicle reported this month that Cal Fire had blown through its budget after spending $432 million in July and August alone. It has asked state legislators for an additional $234 million. 

While technology has improved firefighter safety, climate change has brought new danger. Max Kiefer, a former senior scientist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and other researchers concluded in a 2016 report that there “is strong evidence that climate change is and will continue to present increased risk of occupational injury, disease, and death,” including for wildland firefighters.

Death, injury and exposure to smoke and extreme heat are obvious risks of firefighting. Less often talked about are the mental health impacts of the job.

As fires have become more devastating, Cal Fire has seen an uptick in suicides, domestic violence and substance abuse among its firefighters, according to Mohler. In response, the agency has boosted counseling and other support services. A study released in April by the nonprofit Ruderman Family Foundation found that more firefighters died by suicide in 2017 than in the line of duty ― 103 to 93, respectively.

Mark Brunton, a battalion chief at Cal Fire, said the last five years have been the “busiest, most complex” of his 31-year career. It’s not uncommon for men and women to be dispatched for a month at a time. His record is 62 days straight. It wasn’t long ago that it was frowned upon to use vacation days during peak fire season. “Now,” Brunton said, “people take it off for sanity reasons.”

“The environmental factors wear on you. The stress wears on you. The sleep deprivation wears on you. All those things wear on you,” he said. “And when that’s constant, it’s cumulative.”

In mid-August, after two weeks of fighting the Mendocino Complex, Albright returned home to southern California, exhausted and covered in poison oak.

“You go home a little more broken than when you come,” he said. “You definitely leave some of yourself up here when you’re working.”

A Santa Rosa fire station was among the many buildings destroyed during the Northern California “firestorm" last Octobe
A Santa Rosa fire station was among the many buildings destroyed during the Northern California “firestorm" last October. Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner is pictured here in front of the empty lot.

If anything positive has come from the devastation, it’s a sense of urgency to get a handle on the situation. California is taking steps to improve forest health and better prepare for the impacts of climate change. In May, Brown earmarked an additional $96 million to fight tree mortality, conduct more prescribed burning and other natural fuel reduction, and improve public education about how to protect homes from fire.

Firefighters and state lawmakers are also looking to reshape the state’s age-old approach to firefighting. Instead of waiting until a fire starts to send resources, they are pushing for more funding to position people and equipment in advance in areas with high fire risk, to get a jump on fires before they rage out of control.

When officials in Sonoma and Napa counties put out a call for help last year through the state’s mutual aid program, a system in which local governments send emergency assistance, they requested approximately 300 engines, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. But with numerous other fires roaring across the state, only 130 showed up.

With limited resources and flames moving at breakneck speed, Sonoma became a sitting duck. At least 31 people were killed in the Tubbs, Nuns and Atlas fires.

In the end, none of Sonoma County’s efforts to combat the climate crisis kept it from getting “smacked in the face by the realities of climate change,” said James Gore, chair of the county board of supervisors.

He and other local officials hope to help other communities avoid a similar tragedy. In June, when the National Weather Service issued California’s first “red flag” fire hazard warning of 2018, Sonoma County put together a task force of six engines, a water tender and firefighters, using their own funds with no guarantee of being reimbursed. And when Lake County called for help with the Pawnee fire, the Sonoma unit was among the first to respond.

“We cannot sit on equipment” during major fire threats, Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner said as he drove through the city’s vacant, fire-ravaged subdivisions earlier this summer. “We’ve got to send them where the need is.”

Kurt Henke, a former chief of the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District who now does consulting for fire departments around the country, says firefighters must be proactive and adapt with the changing climate, but that there is no magic pill when it comes to fighting extreme fire.

“This is an extremely dangerous profession, and mother nature can be very cruel,” he said.