Time to change how we fight wildfires

Time to change how we fight wildfires
© David McNew/Getty Images

I recently awoke on a blistering hot late-summer morning to a wrenching tweet from a wildland firefighter from in British Columbia that said, “Help us, help your neighbors, help everyone get through the next six weeks of what has been the most challenging summer.”

The desperate tone of his tweet, which could have come from a wildland firefighter battling blazes in any number of countries this summer, drove home the stark reality that as the wildfire threat intensifies with climate change, we now face two crises: one that is primarily ecological and one that is deeply human.

Sadly, our current approach to wildland fire management, a system that was put into place decades ago when Earth’s climate was more stable, is setting us up to fail on both fronts because it is based on three outdated assumptions.

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The first is that wildfires behave in understandable and predictable ways.

The second is that there are sufficient resources to support the firefighters who face these fires. 

The third is that with enough funding, knowhow and determination, all fires are manageable.

The wildfires that have engulfed parts of Canada, Greenland, Greece, Turkey, Siberia, Algeria, France, the western United States and other countries and regions this summer are sending a clear signal that these assumptions no longer hold. 

Conditions have changed. The way we fight wildfires must change, too. 

Creating a new and more resilient path forward begins by acknowledging the ecological and social changes that have taken place in the landscape over the last half-century. Fires are larger, less predictable and more intense today; long-time first responders tell us they’ve never seen conditions like this before. Fire seasons last longer, creating a dangerous imbalance in the supply of and demand for firefighting resources, especially at peak times of the year. And more people are living in harm’s way as human development encroaches farther and farther into the wildland-urban interface. All of this complicates the already challenging conditions our wildland firefighters face. 

We can’t reverse these changes, but there are four actions we can, and must, take in response to them. 

  1. We must acknowledge that we cannot put out all fires, nor can we fight them all with the same tool kit.

Full-suppression strategies, especially for the biggest, most severe fires, will increasingly not be the safest nor most effective response. This means we will need to get better at two things — recognizing where and when suppression can be used safely and effectively, while evacuating people from the places where this level of protection is not possible. Both of these actions mean we will lose more houses and things that people care about.

We must also recognize that in extreme conditions, there are few things even the most experienced and best-equipped teams of firefighters can do to control a blaze. In many cases, their only option is to wait for the weather to change — which is difficult for the non-firefighting community to understand and accept.

  1. Communities need to proactively reduce their risk factors and build greater capacity for resilience.

This includes creating and maintaining defensible spaces, reducing hazardous fuels, revising building and construction codes, as well as working with first responders to set priorities for community protection and identify trigger points for community evacuation.

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Taking these steps will boost community resilience, reduce the risk of casualties and create a greater sense of shared responsibility between communities and government agencies. 

  1. “Good” fires must be allowed to return to the landscape.

To reduce the buildup of dead trees, dry brush and other ground fuels that can help stoke catastrophic wildland fires, we need more “good” fire, known as prescribed burns, on the landscape. This means conducting more large-scale, multi-jurisdictional prescribed burns to clear away this fuel and replicate the regenerative effects of natural fires that once played beneficial roles in many ecosystems but have, in recent times, largely been suppressed. It also means allowing some wildfires to burn when it is safe to do so and pose no risks to humans.

Allowing more “good” fire on the landscape will help limit the spread and severity of future wildfires, promote greater ecological resilience in the long run and give firefighters another tool to enhance suppression effectiveness when suppression can be used effectively. 

  1. We need to recognize and more compassionately respond to the growing risks faced by wildland firefighters.

Whether they are professionals or volunteers, the men and woman who battle wildfires today also battle extreme physical and mental stresses. 

Injury, exhaustion and burn-out are increasingly likely as wildfires grow larger and more frequent and as fire seasons grow longer, leaving less time in between for recovery. Firefighters are blamed for not getting on fires fast enough or otherwise failing to meet unreasonable expectations.

The risk of fire fatalities looms large and, when tragedy strikes, it can trigger intense grief, frustration, guilt, rage and despair, as can recriminations from a public that increasingly blames firefighters when a fire can’t be controlled. It should come as no surprise that we now see rising rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, depression and suicide in the wildland firefighting community.

To reduce these stresses, federal and state agencies must hire more firefighters and provide them the resources they need — not just equipment, but also sufficient time-off and expanded professional counseling services — to do the job they are trained for and take such pride in. 

At a time of unprecedented ecological change and an increasingly unstable climate, the costs associated with taking these actions and creating more resilient ecosystems, communities and firefighters are an investment in our future.

Toddi Steelman is president of the International Association of Wildland Fire and the Stanback Dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Follow her on Twitter: @EnviroWonk