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

Inmate firefighters battle the Ferguson Fire in Jerseydale, Calif., in July 2018. (Noah Berger/AFP/Getty Images)

By Sarah Kaplan

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By Sarah Kaplan

Climate and science reporterEmailBioFollowJuly 1, 2021 at 8:33 a.m. EDT480

PORTLAND, Ore. — On the heels of one of the worst wildfire years on record, the federal government is struggling to recruit and retain staff as firefighters grapple with low wages, trauma and burnout from increasingly long and intense fire seasons.

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.”President Joe Biden on June 30 announced pay raises for federal firefighters during a meeting with Western state governors on the upcoming wildfire season. (Reuters)

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.”

How climate change fuels the West’s infernos

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.

Confronting a shifting climate, how will California grow?

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.

Extreme drought conditions prevail throughout the southwest

Exceptional

drought

Extreme

drought

Severe

drought

Moderate

drought

WYO.

COLO.

Salt Lake City

NEVADA

GREAT BASIN

SIERRA NEVADA

Reno

UTAH

San Francisco

N.M.

Las Vegas

Fresno

CALIF.

ARIZ.

Los Angeles

Phoenix

PACIFIC

OCEAN

San Diego

Tucson

100 MILES

THE WASHINGTON POST

Source: U.S. Drought Monitor

The National Interagency Fire Center last week raised the nation’s “preparedness level” to 4, indicating more than half of the country’s firefighting resources are already committed.

“We’re always doing more with less,” said one smokejumper — a highly trained firefighter who parachutes into remote blazes. The 13-year veteran of the Forest Service spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his job.

During last summer’s deadly blazes, he would request backup only to find that 10 other fire managers also needed help. Many firefighters worked more than 1,000 hours of overtime.

The strain is untenable.

“My body is just beat up,” he said. “I feel probably 10 years older than I am. But the mental part is even crazier: Almost everyone I know on fire knows someone who has committed suicide, or has had to talk a friend off the ledge.”

His federal colleagues are leaving the government to work for utilities or state agencies such as CalFire, which offers double the starting salary. Almost a third of California’s 49 federal hotshot crews — elite groups that battle the hottest parts of forest fires — are so short-staffed that they will not be able to activate as a full unit, the smokejumper said.

Grassroots Wildland Firefighters estimates 20 percent of permanent firefighting positions at the Forest Service are unfilled.

Even if these open positions are backfilled by seasonal hires, Martin said, the temporary employees won’t be as knowledgeable or experienced as the firefighters they replace.

Severe heat and drought are the hallmarks of a changing West

Forest Service spokesman John Haynes said the agency does not track the number of unfilled positions and declined to comment on the specific shortages reported by the smokejumper and Martin. Haynes said the Forest Service has about 10,000 full-time and seasonal firefighters working across the country this year, similar to years past.

At his meeting Wednesday, Biden called wages for federal firefighters “unacceptable” and announced he would be issuing bonuses that effectively raise their minimum salary to $15 an hour. He also said the government would be training National Guard members to provide “surge capacity” this fire season and would offer retention incentives to convert seasonal firefighters into full-time employees.

In addition, the draft infrastructure bill proposed by a bipartisan group of senators last week would increase the base salary for most federal firefighters by $20,000 a year.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Martin said, but improving pay is just the start. Grassroots Wildland Firefighters advocates the creation of a National Fire Service with an expanded workforce and full-time benefits, including mental health services.

In addition, the country has to shift away from the “war on fire” mentality, Martin said — taking fewer risks with firefighters and spending more time preparing the landscape to reduce the chance of catastrophe when fires inevitably occur.

When forests become fuel

The need for more fire in Western forests compared with those elsewhere isn’t new. Since the 1970s, scientists have known that the West’s “fire-adapted” ecosystems depend on periodic fire to clear out debris and remove ailing vegetation.

The increase in fire risk wrought by human-caused warming only underscores that need. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found human-caused climate change was drying out fuels and increasing the number of days in which forests were at high risk of fire. As a result, the scientists concluded, twice as much forest burned between 1984 and 2015 as would have under normal conditions.

The shortsighted practice of stopping all fire, experts say, is no longer an option.

Parched vegetation in West holds potential for severe wildfires

To determine the potential for severe wildfires, researchers calculate the Energy Release Component (ERC)*, which measures the potential for vegetation to burn based on recent weather.

30-year average

Lower

fire danger

Higher fire

danger

Seattle

Portland

Bozeman

Minneapolis

Boise

Salt Lake City

San Francisco

Denver

Las Vegas

Phoenix

*Data shown represents the difference between average ERC over the past two weeks compared to a 1991-2020 average.

Source: Climate Engine

ZACH LEVITT/THE WASHINGTON POST

In a Zoom meeting with federal wildland firefighters last month, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the only way to reduce catastrophic wildfire was to “significantly increase the level of management on our forests” — including thinning out vegetation and intentionally setting fires that mimic the effects of natural burns.

Federal budgets haven’t always reflected that priority. Last year, the federal government allocated $3.6 billion to fighting fires and $590 million for vegetation management.

Biden’s latest budget request seeks to close that gap, dedicating $2.5 billion to fighting fire and $1.7 billion for hazardous fuels management and forest resilience projects.

Intensifying California drought promises ‘very concerning’ fire season

Yet improved forest management is not a cure-all, scientists caution. For one thing, some ecosystems, such as the cool, rainy forests of the Pacific Northwest, are naturally dense and full of debris. These landscapes were so wet they only burned every few centuries, when a rare sequence of events — extreme heat and prolonged drought combined with high winds and an unlucky lightning strike — came together to set the forest ablaze.

The problem now, said Sheehan, the environmental scientist, is that climate change is making those once-rare events far more likely.

“The potential for fire goes from almost never to, you know, every several years,” he said.

Even in systems where fire suppression is responsible for fuel buildup, such as mixed conifer stands in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada, fuel treatments can’t always affect the course of a fire. This is especially true during the most severe fires, which have become even more intense as the West warms and are the cause of most deaths and destroyed homes.

Beginning in 2001, Paradise, Calif. surrounded itself with dozens of miles of fuel breaks. But when the wind-driven Camp Fire came roaring down a nearby canyon in November 2018, it burned straight through those protective barriers, killing 86 people and destroying the town.

“We as society and our political institutions have this very ingrained assumption that we can be saved from wildfires through proper treatment of the forest,” said Kimiko Barrett, who studies wildfire and community resilience at Headwaters Economics, a Montana-based environmental think tank.

“But given the severity of climate change and the scale at which fires are occurring,” she added, “how long are we going to continue to try that, without bringing in the role of human decisions?”

‘Why are these houses here?’

A growing body of research suggests the best strategy to minimize wildfires’ harmful effects is to focus on the things that people are most able to control: the location of homes, the materials used to build them and the preparedness level of the people inside.

For example, an analysis of 5,500 California structures that had been damaged or destroyed by wildfire since 2001 found the position of homes — far from roads on steep slopes or in wind-funneling canyons — was the strongest predictor of whether they would burn down, no matter the state of the forest around them.

National Institutes of Science and Technology researchhas found houses themselves provide some of the most significant fuel for wildfires once they move into a community. In one of Colorado’s most destructive blazes, the fire spread from structure to structure in a “cascade” of ignitions that destroyed almost 300 houses. Construction with flameproof materials, the agency said, could slow fires when they reach communities and make buildings less likely to burn.

Even small improvements to existing structures can make them safer: clearing debris from roofs, rain gutters and yards. Installing mesh screens over vents to stop embers from getting inside. Creating a perimeter of “defensible space” between the house and thick vegetation. Replacing roofs and wooden fences with materials that don’t burn.

Last year’s wildfires destroyed more than 17,000 buildings and cost the nation $16.6 billion, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.

Yet there is little regulation of where and how people build in what’s known as the “wildland urban interface.” Just four states have specific building codes for new construction in these areas, even though an estimated 40 million U.S. homes are located there. Only California and Oregon require wildfire risk to be disclosed to new home buyers, and no state has laws mandating fire-safe upgrades to existing structures.

Federal spending on community protection is even less than the budget for forest management — and far less than the demand. In 2020, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program was allocated $500 million to fund local efforts to avert all manner of disaster: fires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes. The agency wound up receiving requests for $3.6 billion in applications from cities, states and tribes.

“It’s very hard to find the resources,” said Megan Fitzgerald McGowan, program manager for Firewise USA. The voluntary program, run by the National Fire Protection Association, provides guidance to communities looking to protect themselves from worsening blazes. But McGowan said the grants needed to fund this work are scarce, and often the communities most in need don’t have the wherewithal to apply.

Improvements wouldn’t just save homes — they could also save lives, said McGowan, a former wildland firefighter.

“You’d get into communities, going up a narrow dirt road, and think, ‘Why are these houses here?’ ” she said. “Like, this is not safe for me or my crew to be here.”

That’s what inspired McGowan to switch from firefighting to advocacy.

“Wildfires are happening, they’re getting worse, and there’s things we can do to make the whole thing safer,” she said. “It just takes people seeing themselves as part of the bigger community and owning their part of the wildfire solution.”