On the fire line, grueling work and an ever-fiercer enemy

John Schwartz, The New York Times

Posted at Sep 16 2020 03:07 PM

Fighting a fire in Fairfield, Calif., by burning a field in front of the advancing flames on Aug. 19, 2020. Basic firefighting techniques have changed little in decades — but fires themselves are now changing as the world warms, complicating an already perilous profession. Max Whittaker, The New York Times 

UNITED STATES - The basic techniques for fighting wildfires have changed little in decades. Aircraft dropping water and chemicals from the sky, and on the ground bulldozers, adzes, chainsaws and the boots of thousands of firefighters racing to hold back the flames.

But the fires themselves are changing, partly as a consequence of climate change, burning hotter and more rapidly and destroying record acreage.

California alone experienced a fivefold increase in annual burned area between 1972 and 2018, and this year, more than 5 million acres have already burned in California, Oregon and Washington state. Over time, wildfires are becoming more frequent, and the seasons are growing more intense.

On Tuesday, fires continued their widespread destruction across much of the West, taking advantage of tinder-dry brush and undergrowth primed for disaster by the increased temperatures and dryness from climate change. Smoke made the air over Portland, Oregon, the worst in the world, and the San Francisco Bay Area set a local record after nearly a month of hazardous air quality alerts — conditions that research has linked to health problems.

The increasingly dangerous conditions are testing the limits of traditional firefighting techniques, experts say.

“You can’t look to wildland firefighters to protect you if you don’t address the complexities of climate change,” said Jim Whittington, a former spokesman for firefighting agencies.

The firefighters rely on techniques developed over the decades to hold fires at bay.

Along with using helicopters and tanker aircraft to drop the water and flame retardant, there is arduous labor on the ground. Some of it requires carefully burning areas in the path of an advancing fire to try to rob it of the fuel it needs to keep progressing. It can also involve dousing flames with water brought in by truck — or, in rough country, hiked in along with hoses and pumps.

At the most fundamental, though, it means workers using hand tools to dig the fire lines — the borders, cleared of trees and shrub, that can stop a fire from advancing by removing all vegetation and scraping down to the “mineral soil,” the bare dirt.

“Despite our modern 2020 world, with an app for everything, there is no app for digging fire lines,” said Holly Krake, a U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman working on the Riverside Fire in Oregon.

Many of the people who take on this backbreaking task are seasonal workers, and some are prison inmates. Their tool kits include low-tech implements of destruction, some of which are familiar, like the chainsaws and shovels. Others are odd yet exquisitely shaped to their purpose, like the Pulaski, which has a head with an ax at one side and an adze on the other that can break up packed dirt.

Fitness is another requirement of the trade. Along with some 40 hours of classroom training, firefighters typically have to show that they can walk 45 minutes wearing a 45-pound weighted vest, a substitute for the heavy packs they must carry into the fire zones.

Those packs include not only their equipment, radios, food and water but also a portable fire shelter that the firefighter can rapidly deploy if the flames come too close. Federal officials have required firefighters to carry the small, collapsible tents since 1977, and they have been credited with saving hundreds of lives, but they are a last resort. Made of layers of materials like foil and silica weave, they can shelter firefighters from smoke and high heat but cannot protect against direct contact with flames.

Digging a line is grinding work, said Sam Rogers, a crew captain with Cal Fire. Rough terrain requires firefighters to clear and dig by hand, hour after hour, day after day, in the heat and smoke, cutting a strip 8 feet or more across.

“A really fast line cut, you’re only cutting 500 feet an hour,” he said. “If you get a mile of line cut a day, you’re doing good.”

He and his crew have spent recent weeks fighting the LNU Lightning Complex Fires.

It is also grueling, said Marcus Bovarie, a self-described “line grunt” and former member of inmate crews who is now on Rogers’ team “digging trenches, swinging axes, using chainsaws — we take heavy brush and reduce it to a dirt road.”

Whittington, the former public information officer, has warned that the consequences of a warming world are overtaking firefighting. To understand the changing nature of wildfire “means you have to change our whole approach — including our past practices, our current practices, the way we learn, the way we train,” he said in an interview. “It’s going to take a substantial amount of work to figure that out.”

At a minimum, he said, that requires putting far more resources into fire prevention and preparedness, but also avoiding quick-fix changes to firefighting that could introduce unintended consequences and do more harm than good. “In this era,” he wrote, “we have to get it right.”

This year, firefighting is complicated not only by climate change but also by the coronavirus pandemic. The virus has reduced the ranks of inmate firefighters in California, but it has also led to camp rules that promote social distancing — especially important in light of the prevalence of “camp crud,” respiratory illness that commonly runs through the gathered masses of firefighters. Each region has produced plans for dealing with social distancing and other measures.

A firefighter calls for more water while battling the LNC Lightning Complex Fire in Vacaville, Calif., Aug. 19, 2020. Basic firefighting techniques have changed little in decades — but fires themselves are now changing as the world warms, complicating an already perilous profession. Max Whittaker, The New York Times 

Typically, the work on a fire runs 24 hours on and 24 hours off, with little or no sleep during the shift. When do they sleep? “Sometimes we don’t,” Bovarie said. During more intense periods of firefighting, shifts can extend into days. But, he added, “We love it — it’s our duty. We feel like we’re making a difference.”

Brendan O’Connor, a member of Rogers’ team whose chief job as a “puller” means he tosses downed brush and trees aside, agreed: “There’s nothing I’d rather be doing right now.” Still, he said, “there are moments when you’re working when you feel the world is going to end.”

Much of the work may be low-tech, but high technology goes into the planning of the lines.

“It used to be, ‘Hey, get out there, dig that line, don’t let a tree fall on you and stay out of the flames,’” Whittington said. Today, operational plans are subjected to risk analysis using information about conditions from the ground and from airplanes, as well as meteorologists who can forecast local conditions and look out for signs of high winds or other factors that can send fires out of control.

“Risk is always there,” Whittington said. “It’s how much exposure you’re willing to accept. That’s the art of firefighting.”

Deciding how and where to attack the fire depends on local conditions, Rogers of Cal Fire said, and takes into account vegetation (which firefighters refer to as fuel), the weather and the topography, and trying to place a fire line that will hold.

“As a crew captain, you’re constantly trying to find winnable situations,” he said. “While it’s grunt work, it’s also a thinking man’s job.”

There are times, he said, when your experience shows you “you’re not getting out ahead of that fire.” With a fire raging on steep terrain, or with heavy fuels with the potential for “spotting,” or sending embers that can jump the fire ahead, “you’re not going to be able to get in there and make a lot of change,” he said.

Better to let the fire burn down, he said, and reach terrain that is more accessible, with less of the fuel that can make a fire burn intensely, “That’s where you make your stand,” Rogers said.

Those who do perform this dangerous function form a bond, said one firefighter, a man in his 20s who asked not to be identified because, as a temporary worker, he did not want to hurt his chances of being hired again by being perceived as a critic or troublemaker. “You are not just working with these people, you are living with them,” he said. “You need to be able to trust these people with your life.”

He said he was drawn to the excitement and the camaraderie but was bothered by government practices that have made it hard for seasonal workers like him to get health benefits, and by the base pay, which is less than $15 an hour.

Since wages increase with the overtime and hazard pay that come with actively fighting a fire, it can lead to thinking that might seem bizarre to outsiders, he acknowledged. “What we call a ‘good year’ is when there’s a lot of fires,” he said.

Could today’s expanded fire seasons and raging wildfires render current firefighting approaches obsolete?

Fernanda Santos, a journalism professor at Arizona State University and author of “The Fire Line,” which tells the story of the loss of 19 firefighters in the 2013 Yarnell Fire in Arizona, noted that people leave their homes before hurricanes and move to higher ground when tsunamis threaten.

“Fire is the only element we fight,” said Santos, a former reporter for The New York Times.

“We think we can beat fire,” she said. “And historically, we have. But the fires we’re seeing now are different.”

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