Exceptional drought and extreme heat: The fire risk in the West has never been seen before

Exceptional drought and extreme heat: The fire risk in the West has never been seen before
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Over the July 4 weekend, as many Americans are celebrating our independence and reuniting after the worst of the pandemic, firefighters will be on high alert across the West, watching the weather, analyzing the National Incident Situation Report, and waiting for the inevitable spike in fire starts that come with fireworks. As we move into an uncertain future with fire, we must consider how our fascination with fireworks affects the landscape, our communities, and the firefighters charged with protecting us.

In 2017, a group of teenagers were playing with fireworks left over from July 4. A young man tossed one into the Eagle Creek drainage in the Columbia River Gorge, a scenic area just outside of Portland known for Multnomah Falls and the historic Columbia River Highway. Because of the firework, a fire started that quickly trapped over 170 hikers and damaged sections of the historic highway. As it grew toward 48,000 acres, the fire caused evacuations as well as the closure of Interstate 84, the Union Pacific railroad corridor and the shutdown of utility lines. The fire spotted across the Columbia leading the Coast Guard to close the river because the risk of a container ship catching fire was too great. The drinking water supply for the city of Portland was threatened and salmon had to be released early from fish hatcheries. The fire took almost two months to contain and required over 1,000 firefighters at the peak of operations. All of this from one small firework.

Wildland fires are all about ignitions. Without ignitions, there are no fires regardless of how severe the conditions are. Unfortunately, the number of human ignitions across the United States doubles every July 4 and in some regions of the West, that number is three to four times the average. Fireworks-caused starts are the main reason for the increased numbers. We also know that there are usually two or three dry lightning storms across Northern California and parts of the Pacific Northwest each summer. We should not still be fighting preventable fires started by fireworks when the lightning comes.

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This Independence Day, conditions across the West are extreme and set up for rapid large fire growth. We are currently in the middle of a record-shattering heatwave across the Northwest and Canada. In the West, 90 percent of the region is in drought with over half the region in extreme to exceptional drought. According to the National Interagency Fire Center’s monthly Fire Potential Outlook, this is “the most expansive and intense drought for the West this century.” There is no relief in sight until the winter weather finally takes hold and that will provide only a brief respite before we head into Fire Year 2022.

Wildland firefighting is hard work and fatigue is cumulative, as is the stress that comes from being the only hope between a community and a fire. Hiking steep slopes with heavy packs and tools like a chainsaw or a Pulaski demands tremendous physical exertion — and that is just to get to where the work starts. Fourteen straight days of fireline construction while sleeping in a bag on the ground takes a toll. Do it for five months or more and it may take even the most well-conditioned firefighter several weeks just to recover physically and cough the smoke out of their airways. Lightning will start more than enough fires to exhaust firefighters this year.

Fires are more than exhausting though. Wildland firefighters have a saying that the most dangerous fire is the one you are working right now. Every fire, no matter how small or seemingly benign, has the potential to cause harm. That risk is elevated when working in fire conditions where the lessons of past experiences no longer wholly apply, when there is something just outside your grasp of understanding.

The 2021 fire environment has never been seen before. The drought, the record high temperatures and record low fuel moistures, the unpredictable jet stream, and the expanding wildland-urban interface all combine to make a changed world for wildland firefighters. Familiar yes, but different enough to add levels of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Going forward, the uncertainty and unpredictability of fires will only increase the stress on firefighters as the complex natural systems of climate, weather, fuels and topography interact with each other in new ways along with the complex human systems of infrastructure and communities. The burden on wildland firefighters to understand risk, make difficult decisions, and act under the stress of compressed time will only grow as the climate creates more extreme conditions.

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To have wildland firefighters shoulder all of this burden going forward is not fair and it is not ethical. It is time to rethink our relationship with fire and a good start is to address the ignitions caused by fireworks. Thankfully, fireworks are now banned on federal lands and in many other jurisdictions.

There is no denying July 4 fireworks are fun. When I was a kid back in the 1960s and 1970s, we set off Roman candles and bottle rockets in the street while our parents looked on approvingly. It was indeed a celebration. As a father, I tried to continue that celebration with my kids. However, I have come to realize my childhood was in a different world — literally. Our climate has changed dramatically which means conditions that support wildland fires have changed too. Changed enough in many parts of our country to where a sparkling fountain in the backyard can lead to a destructive wildfire just as easily as a lightning strike in the wilderness.

That is why this year, instead of spending money on fireworks, our family will be donating to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, a group that helps the families of injured and fallen wildland firefighters. We must all do our part to protect our communities and support our wildland firefighters by not being careless with fireworks this summer.

Jim Whittington has worked on over 80 large fires in his career as a member of incident management teams in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest. He retired from the Bureau of Land Management in 2017 and continues to advise federal, state and local agencies and teach courses on crisis communications and incident management. Follow him on Twitter: @JimWhittington