Former Yosemite chief on battling climate change wildfires
As kids in northern Illinois, my siblings and I hardly considered collecting leaves from our yard a chore. The promise to light the pile of fire and see it blaze at the end of the day was a reward.
My love of fire has remained a core value over the years, influencing my professional development, my education, and the land management methods I championed during my 35 years with the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service and now at retirement, with basic forest firefighters.
Since the beginning of my career in 1984, the National Park Service has led the industry in integrating fire into land management planning. Wildfires release nutrients into the soil, promote seed germination, improve forest diversity and maintain critical habitats for wildlife.
During my career as a fire and aviation chief at Yosemite National Park, I witnessed how wildfires led to the supply of nutrients needed for new flower growth. wild; sprouting giant sequoia seedlings; and the creation and transformation of diverse wildlife habitats. These experiences allow me to understand the essential role of fire in maintaining healthy ecosystems and to appreciate our wildland firefighters.
Despite their many benefits, wildfires remain dangerous and destructive events that climate change is exacerbating. Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of forest fires with more intense and prolonged droughts, more flammable vegetation and higher seasonal temperatures making forests more susceptible to burning rapidly and unpredictably.
When prescribed burns – fires set intentionally to burn off forest litter and dead vegetation that could fuel wildfires – are combined with other fire suppression techniques, they can reduce the severity of wildfires. up to 72%. But landowners have tried to downplay controlled fires in land management, citing threats to life, property and natural resources. However, suppressing wildfires while ignoring their use as an essentially natural process has only worsened their effects.
From 1985 to 1999, the average annual federal cost of wildfire suppression in the United States hovered at $425 million. Between 2000 and 2019 it jumped to $1.6 billion, and in 2021 it topped $4.4 billion. The current reactive focus on fire suppression diverts financial resources and human capital from the already limited manpower available to advance proactive land management techniques that improve forest resilience to climate change.
The United States is experiencing some of the worst recorded fires and droughts in its history, and wildland firefighters are at the forefront of this crisis. They are being drained of resources and still being asked to do more – and risk more – than ever before, while receiving lower salaries than their city and state counterparts. These conditions are not long-lasting and have resulted in physical harm, high and untreated sleep deprivation problems, alcohol use disorders, depression, and suicide. Firefighters are more likely to commit suicide than in the line of duty.
The Biden administration has made progress in addressing this crisis by pledging to raise the minimum wage for federal firefighters, establishing incentives for retention and offering bonuses to seasonal workers. But much more needs to be done to reform the federal firefighting workforce and its resources. A bill such as the “Tim’s Act” would provide adequate compensation and classification, mental health leave, education, training and other essentials for workforce retention and conditions safer.
The wildfires I witness today are not the same wildfires I saw growing up. Climate change makes them more intense, dangerous and difficult to control. As Congress works into 2022, it must consider enduring legislation that supports federal firefighters on the front lines.
The bipartisan Infrastructure Act allocated the necessary funds for forest restoration work, including $5.16 billion to better defend our forests through practices such as prescribed burns. But the firefighters who will be essential to implementing these practices must be paid competitive salaries and given the necessary training, time off and other vital benefits. This will lead to a more robust workforce, which is desperately needed to cope with the increasingly long and intense wildfire seasons, mainly due to climate change.
Kelly Martin co-founded Grassroots Wildland Firefighters to advocate for the health and well-being of firefighters. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.