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California’s Worsening Wildfire Conditions Putting Firefighters At Risk

Oct 2, 2018

September is over, and that used to signal the end of wildfire season. But as 2017’s massive Thomas Fire showed us, wildfires in California can rage on well into December. Meanwhile firefighting has gotten a lot more complicated; there’s drought to contend with, and housing development in fire-prone areas. Six California firefighters have been killed on the job so far this year. And it’s a number that isn’t falling, unlike in other parts of the country.

Walking near Grant Grove in Sequoia National Park, it doesn’t take long to find clods of dead trees, some shriveled by bark beetles and others charred by the 2015 Rough Fire. As I head down a trail with park fire information officer Rebecca Paterson, we come across a blackened tree that’s fallen and blocked the trail. “We have an evidently burned snag that fell across the trail,” she says. “Standing dead trees, we call them snags.”

Paterson points to a fire-damaged tree that just recently fell across this trail. Standing dead trees, or snags, are especially dangerous to firefighters, and their risk is likely increasing as more trees are damaged by drought, bark beetles and forest fires.
Credit Kerry Klein / Valley Public Radio

Trees that are dead or damaged are unpredictable; erratic. They don’t fall the way living trees do. This unpredictability is likely what killed Brian Hughes, a hotshot firefighter with the National Park Service who died while battling the Ferguson Fire near Yosemite National Park in July. Paterson says his crew was working on a small spot fire near the main blaze. "They were dropping a tree that was maybe on fire in the spot fire or maybe just close to it in a way that was compromising their firefighting,” she says. “And that tree struck Brian. And killed him.”

Paterson’s also a firefighter, and she’s worked with Hughes. “It’s obviously an incredibly traumatic event for that crew and for the park as a whole,” she says.

Hughes was a casualty of worsening firefighting conditions in California, which add drought-addled forests and homes built in fire-prone areas to an already complex terrain. “We do train a lot to try to mitigate all of the hazards that we can, but obviously it is a dangerous situation to be in,” says Lucas Spelman, a battalion chief in Riverside with the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire.

Each year on average, a few dozen firefighters die fighting wildfires in the U.S. In California, that number is closer to five. And really, with tens of thousands of firefighters out in the forests each year, it’s amazing more firefighters aren’t killed in action.

Plus, the biggest on-the-job killer of firefighters isn’t the fire itself. According to occupational safety data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common causes of firefighter deaths are vehicle collisions, in burn areas and on roads, and overexertion. Most die of trauma and heart attacks.  “Our profession isn’t just getting burned from the fire,” says Spelman.

The nature of deaths among wildland firefighters killed on the job from 1994-2017.
Credit CDC

Part of the reason for that, Spelman says, is the intense training firefighters receive. “We make sure that our firefighters are trained to the highest level,” he says. “And not just at the start of their careers, but continually on a weekly basis we still go over the basics.”

As a testament to that training, wildland firefighter deaths have been falling across the U.S. Over the last 25 years, the annual average of fatalities has dropped by about 30 percent. “We have really developed an aggressive commitment to learning from accidents and near misses,” says Steve Holdsambeck, Branch Chief of Risk Management for Forest and Aviation with the U.S. Forest Service.

That safety record isn’t as clear in California, however. Here, over the last 25 years, annual fatalities have on average held steady, even factoring out a horrific helicopter accident in 2008 that killed nine firefighters in northern California.

Deaths among wildland firefighters over time. Note that the California data do not include 9 wildland firefighters killed in a helicopter crash in 2008. Including this outlier data would result in an increase in the average fatality rate over time.
Credit CDC

Holdsambeck says those numbers don’t surprise him. Why? Fires are getting worse, here and throughout the west. Drought and higher temperatures mean more dry plants as fuel, bigger, more intense fires, and a longer fire season. All that means more risk to firefighters. “The number of opportunities you have to get into trouble happen more so out in the west than they do in any other part of the United States,” says Rick Swan, Director of Wildland Firefighting Safety and Response for the union the International Association of Firefighters.

Another big risk factor is human development at the so-called wildland-urban interface, in which structures get built in fire-prone areas. It relates back to this central tenet to firefighting that gets repeated over and over: "Risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little, and risk nothing to save nothing,” says Swan.

In other words, firefighters will risk more for a human life than for an empty house than for a stand of dead trees. But development in these areas has mucked up that calculus. A consulting group estimates California has developed about 800 square miles of its wildland-urban interface – the second most development of any western state.

When a lot is lost, like the life of Brian Hughes, I asked Paterson: does that spook firefighters away from the front lines and toward other jobs? She said sure, sometimes. But not as often as you might think. “It is definitely something that can shake up a firefighting community and even their broader community,” she says. “On the other hand, I think that focusing on the dangers inherent of it, you lose sight of the fact that this is just a really rad, cool, fun job.”

A rad job, indeed – but not one without its dangers.