Through the eyes of a wildland firefighter
With 2015 setting new highs for the hottest year on record, you have to ask yourself..... Is climate change still a debate?
My curiosity took the best of me as I felt the vibration of my work phone in my upper right pocket of my nomex shirt. I stopped to catch my breath and glance at the message. “Crew Party Postponed Indefinitely” the text read. This was the second time the end of the year event had been pushed back to a later date due to local fire activity. Usually this time of year the crew finds themselves in the middle of project work and putting the final touches on equipment rehab after a busy summer. But this year October has brought us hot and dry conditions extending fire season out an addition three weeks past our usual season ending events. The local hunters and anglers are keeping the crew busy chasing warming fires and burnt toilet paper. These unintentional acts of survival in the woods most years would go unnoticed and uneventful but in the absents of fall moisture which usually arrives in Montana mid-September they have turned each into uncontrolled wildfires.
The days of debating climate change are behind us.
The wind, restless as usual retook my attention. Today it's doing everything in its power to make life miserable for the crew. I adjust my straps on my pack and placed my phone back into my chest pocket before heading up the steep embankment. The trees continued their conversation all around me as they sway back and forth with the needles rattling in the afternoon breeze. The ground tells its own story by the cracking and snapping with each step I take. It's dry, and it has been that way for a while now. This summer is worse than most. I have been using that line on and off for the past fifteen years when each summer seems a bit worse than the last. The smell of sweat and smoke lingers in the air as I approach the crew. Dirt and ash mangle the faces of each crew member as they pound at the ground making steady progress along division Charley. A tired expression looked up at me from the rear of the line, "how we looking Gue?" I could tell by his face that my response would bring much more than just words. "Looking good, two more chains". He smiled his relentless smile and went back to digging never truly stopping to begin with. I glanced at my watch taking a mental note of the time. Realistically we had more like 20 chains before tying the handline in to Division Bravo. I had hoped to be further along this late in the day. The fall sun sat low on the southern horizon preventing our Northern slopes from receiving direct sunlight. Its helping a bit but our fuels are as dry as I have ever seen this late in the season.
Today's challenges are real and can no longer be ignored.
"Yes, it's worse this year" is my standard answer when people ask about the fire predictions for the upcoming fire season. A few months later I find myself repeating the statement with slightly different verbiage but the same message. “Yes, it’s been a long year and the season doesn’t seem to want to die” The slow perpetual journey to the inevitable. Like a train on a track to a destination that can't be altered. It's too late; it's too far down the line. Mother Nature will be fine; it's the rest of us we have to worry about. But as each day passes the signs are glaring back at us. She is telling us something, a story that we really need to hear. It’s a story told first hand to the farmers, the ranchers, the fisherman, and the wildland firefighters of the world. It’s hot, it’s dry, and it’s only getting worse.
We can argue back and forth on the cause of climate change but the reality is what ever the cause, it's happening.........and it's changing fast.
Mother Nature doesn't lie
"The truth is: the natural world is changing. It is the most precious thing we have and we need to defend it"
Each year we break record for hottest temperature, acres burned, and money spend on firefighting cost
Hotter, Dryer, and Longer
It's almost easy to miss until you actually look. Change has been subtle but blatantly obvious when you look back over the last few years.
Bigger, faster, and more destructive
We have watched fire behavior increase and fires move faster through the landscape destroying more property and homes than ever before.
Stress and fatigue
These changes come at a cost. Our firefighters are working a longer season in harsher conditions. Each year we risk more lives and spend more money to contain and control wildfires, many of which are unstoppable.
Cream of the crop
This generation of firefighters are good at what they do. Many have seen more fire behavior in the last decade than the previous generation witnessed in their entire career.......
Can or should?
Today's firefighters are taking on greater risk than ever before. They are good because they have to be. Just because we can put people in front of wildland fires doesn't always mean we should.
We don't put people out in front of hurricanes, earthquakes, or tornadoes, and tell them to go stop those events.......why are we doing it with wildfires?
The New Norm
On the ground I have watched the dialogue change over the last 15 years from firefighters being caught off guard by "unexpected fire behavior" to the "new norm". One firefighter told me that nothing surprises him anymore....this is the new operational environment.
2015 we watched Alaska burn over 5 million acres 2014 we watched as the King fire burned up more than forty thousand acres of timber in a operational shift. 2013 we watch....
I can make a list clear back to when I started in fire in 2000. As each year passes we notice a longer season and greater intensity throughout the year.
These events are not isolated or by any means normal. This is a reality and reality is telling us that something needs to change
It's time as a society we adapt. Our environment has changed yet we are using the same tools and techniques to address it. We fly more airplanes, use more crews, and spray more water yet the problem remains.
Once we accept that the environment has changed and is going to continue to change we can begin to adapt as a culture. We can find ways to stay safer, be more efficient, and prepare for the future.
With earth day next Friday 🌎 Show the world how you #adapt2climate
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