The Never-Ending Fire Season

 In Environment
By Devin Stein

A series of storms have slowed the massive wildfires raging across Australia, but the problem is far from over.1 Aside from the problems associated with the storms themselves, the fires are likely to continue burning2 for weeks or possibly months. In the past few years alone, there have been incredible destruction in the U.S., the Amazon, and Australia from wildfires. There are many problems with recent wildfires, but especially salient issue is that the fire season is growing longer3 and less predictable, which strains the ability of firefighters to effectively respond. Firefighters, land managers, and policymakers should manage wildfires year-round, regardless of the fire season, because the fire season has little meaning anymore.

Southeastern Australia’s fire season started earlier4 than usual, and is expected to continue5 for weeks or months to come. A longer fire season means more resources are needed for a longer period of time, which puts additional burdens on the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, the hardest-hit region’s volunteer-system of firefighters. Many Australian firefighters are volunteers6 who must leave their jobs to manage dangerous wildfires. In the past, this system has been mostly effective, with the organization claiming7 to be the largest volunteer firefighting organization in the world. A longer fire season, however, strains many of these volunteers who until recent policy changes8 have not been compensated for this work. Longer fire seasons will require new approaches to firefighting that can account for the need to keep firefighters involved for longer periods of time.

The United States, in comparison, has a massive9 professional workforce of firefighters. Of course, there are many volunteer10 firefighters too, but government agencies11 and industry12 both staff thousands of career firefighters. A professional workforce of firefighters makes it easier to keep firefighters involved during long and severe fire seasons. A professional workforce is not a panacea, however, and runs into a different set of problems during lighter fire seasons. When shorter and less severe fire seasons occur like that of the United States in 201913, many professional firefighters are being paid without incidents to respond to. This makes inefficient use of government firefighters, and strains private companies who pay for contract firefighters who are never called upon.

Regardless of approach, both volunteer and professional firefighters want to help manage a growing risk of wildfires. Firefighters risk their lives because they are passionate about the mission, and many want to do more. These firefighters should be trained and used for fire prevention and land management, which keeps them busy in light fire seasons and trained for more severe seasons. This kind of preventative maintenance is widely underperformed14, despite its potential to reduce fire risk and keep firefighters active. Rather than wait and see what each year’s fire season looks like, firefighters should remain alert to overall wildfire risk and work on managing it year-round. Year-round management likely involves a combination of reducing flammable materials from inhabited and otherwise risky areas, designing and constructing safe evacuation routes, and creating landscape-scale barriers to a fire’s passage. All of this requires more time, and often more funding, but the long-term benefits will likely outweigh these costs.

To avoid deadly and destructive fire seasons, policymakers and land managers need to recognize that conventional fire seasons mean little anymore. This reality has been recognized15 by the firefighters on the ground for many years now. The fire season is no longer synonymous with summer, with year-round risk in many parts of the world. In years with long-lasting wildfires, firefighters are forced to stay busy for most, if not all of the year. But in years with short fire seasons, like this past year in the United States, firefighters should not be left to sit idle. Climate change, among other causes, is changing the nature of firefighting, and is putting year-round demands on many landscapes. Firefighters must be able to respond to these increasing demands, and they need all the help they can get to do so from policymakers, land managers, and local residents alike.

Notes


  1. “Australia fires: Storms wreak damage but bushfires ‘far … – BBC.” 20 Jan. 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-51170994. Accessed 3 Feb. 2020. 

  2. “Why These Australia Fires Are Like Nothing We’ve Seen Before.” 21 Jan. 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/21/world/australia/fires-size-climate.html. Accessed 3 Feb. 2020. 

  3. “Fire Seasons Have Become Longer Globally … – EcoWatch.” 19 Mar. 2018, https://www.ecowatch.com/fire-seasons-longer-globally-2549948333.html. Accessed 3 Feb. 2020. 

  4. “Australian government report predicted severe wildfires 11 ….” 8 Jan. 2020, https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24532643-500-australian-government-report-predicted-severe-wildfires-11-years-ago/. Accessed 3 Feb. 2020. 

  5. “What to know about the deadly Australia bushfires and why ….” 2 Jan. 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/International/deadly-bushfires-australia-expected-continue-months/story?id=68030661. Accessed 3 Feb. 2020. 

  6. “Australia fires: The thousands of volunteers fighting the … – BBC.” 24 Dec. 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-50887982. Accessed 3 Feb. 2020. 

  7. “About us – NSW Rural Fire Service – NSW Government.” https://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/about-us. Accessed 3 Feb. 2020. 

  8. “Australia announces compensation for volunteer firefighters ….” 28 Dec. 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/12/australia-announces-compensation-volunteer-firefighters-191229041730850.html. Accessed 3 Feb. 2020. 

  9. “Wildland Fire Careers – US Forest Service – USDA.” https://www.fs.usda.gov/managing-land/fire/careers. Accessed 3 Feb. 2020. 

  10. “About | NVFC.” https://www.nvfc.org/about/. Accessed 3 Feb. 2020. 

  11. “How to Become a Wildland Firefighter | NWCG.” https://www.nwcg.gov/how-to-become-a-wildland-firefighter. Accessed 3 Feb. 2020. 

  12. “Artists, Scientists and Outsiders at CERN A thesis submitted to ….” https://www.research.manchester.ac.uk/portal/files/54586450/FULL_TEXT.PDF. Accessed 3 Feb. 2020. 

  13. “Facts + Statistics: Wildfires | III.” https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-wildfires. Accessed 3 Feb. 2020. 

  14. “We’re not doing enough to prevent forest fires.” https://www.redding.com/story/opinion/readers/2017/12/15/were-not-doing-enough-prevent-forest-fires/952109001/. Accessed 3 Feb. 2020. 

  15. “California’s fire season is basically year-round now..” 24 Apr. 2014, http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/04/california_s_fire_season_is_basically_year_round_now.html. Accessed 3 Feb. 2020.