In 1940, Earl Cooley jumped out of an airplane above Montana’s Nez Perce Forest and into the history books. Cooley was America’s first “smokejumper,” an elite band of US Forest Service wildland firefighters who strap on parachutes, axes, and shovels to stop fires in the backcountry of America’s wilderness.
Today, smokejumpers work overtime with thousands of other wildland firefighters to keep the American west from burning. It’s been a hard year for everyone. In California alone, more than 7,000 fires have raged across an area the size of Delaware, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. As of Nov. 21, the US as a whole had already seen 30% more area burn than during an entire average year in recorded history.
The most recent, and tragic, examples have been the Camp Fire in northern California and Woolsey Fire near Los Angeles. On Nov. 21, the state’s death toll rose to 84 people, with 800 still missing.
Quartz looked at how America’s wildland firefighters are dealing with a new reality of of hotter, more frequent wildfires across the west.
Who are wildland firefighters?
More than 34,000 people in the federal government work on controlling wildland fires, with many more at the state and local levels. They are a mix of full-time professionals, seasonal workers, volunteers, active-duty military, and even prison laborers. Unlike “structure” firefighters in cities, wildland firefighters spend much of their time either in remote wilderness, or where at the interface of wildlands with cities and suburbs (Malibu, which lost more than 1,000 homes in the Woolsey fire, was built in a historical fire corridor).
At the top of the wildland firefighting hierarchy are the US Forest Service’s “hotshot” teams, the profession’s equivalent of military special forces. Each team has about two dozen people highly trained to battle wildland blazes with what they carry on their back: over 50 lbs of gear and supplies including axes, shovels, radios, and water. They spend an average of 103 days on firefighting assignment each year. More than 100 of them spread about the US, and work under the employ of the federal government.
Most of the rest of the wildland firefighters work for state and local agencies, with a large number of seasonal workers who gear up for regional fire seasons. But more seasonal workers are becoming full-time firefighters, says Scott Stephens, a forest economist at the University of California-Berkeley and advisor to CalFire, the state’s fire protection agency. Since 2011, fires have begun to burn year-around in California and agencies have had to keep up seasonal staffing levels to match.
Other unconventional groups also help fight US wildland fires. About 3,400 incarcerated adults and (and some youth) fought wildfires in California this summer, according to the state’s Department of Corrections. The jobs are competitive (despite paying just a few dollars per hour), and Stephens says prisoners receive the same training as entry-level firefighters, which gives the non-violent offenders a potential post-incarceration career path.
Private firefighters are also back on the scene. A century ago, the only fire-fighting services available in much of the US were those that corporations supplied to paying customers. If a fire broke out, rival fire companies would race across town to their customers. This inefficiency and inequality eventually led cities to establish their own public fire services . But private firefighting services are expanding again as expensive homes are built near fire-prone wildlands. The National Wildfire Suppression Association estimates that 12,000 firefighters and staff work for 150 private firefighting companies in the US. Not all of them are for the rich (many contract with local, state, and federal agencies to respond to fires), but many are, suggesting that future fires exacerbated by climate change will fall most heavily on those less able to afford it.
How are they organized?
A multi-tiered system has evolved to supply the fluctuating demand for labor in fire season, says Stephens. During the dry, summer months, rapid response teams can scale up with seasonal labor, then dial back down during the wet winters. Mutual aid agreements allow local governments to quickly call up the chain of command for state and federal agencies, as well as share personnel and equipment. Last year, firefighters from as far away as Florida and Australia helped battles fires north of San Francisco.
What do wildland firefighters do?
Wildland firefighters are deployed in intense tours of 12- to 16-hour days that can go on for weeks. For seasonal workers, the average pay is around $13 per hour, though full-time professionals can make into the six figures as they move up into careers with state and federal agencies.
It’s tough work, some of it unchanged since the early 1900s. Digging “firelines,” wide trenches designed to rid an area of flammable vegetation, is still done using shovels, handaxes, and specialized tools like the Pulaski—a tool, named after its designer, with an axe on one side of its head and a cutting tool on the other, which has been standard-issue for firefighters since the early 1900s. There is some new technology as well: advance computers models and satellite imagery predict where fires will go next.
But the the most critical tool for containing a blaze in the backcountry is still preventative: cutting trenches by hand, thinning small trees and vegetation, and then a controlled burn. These small, planned fires remove potential fuel from areas to keep future infernos from spiralling out of control.
Aircraft are critical. The US Forest Service spends $200 million each year flying a fleet of about 1,000 aircraft ranging from former Air Force tankers to helicopters. Millions of gallons of water and flame-retardant chemicals are dropped to slow a fire’s advance. State and local agencies also operation their own aircraft and vehicle fleets. The Camp Fire, for example, required more than 4,700 firefighters, and a small armada of bulldozers, air tankers, fire engines, and patrol vehicles from different jurisdictions.
How dangerous is it?
Wildland firefighting remains perilous. More than 170 wildland firefighters died between 2007 and 2016. That’s slightly less than previous decades, despite more acres burning, according (pdf) to the National Wildlife Coordinating Group. The majority of those deaths were the result of vehicle and aircraft accidents (38%), heart attacks (24%), and fire (17%).
As fires grow more frequent and intense, the pace of deployments has risen to keep up. That’s taking a toll. Last year, three times as many people were battling three times as many uncontained, large fires than average, reports the US Forest Service. That may be a contributing factor in the rise of suicides among wildland firefighters. In the last seven years, smokejumpers have lost more people to suicide than to on-duty deaths.
Yet many who join the ranks full-time see it as a calculated risk. Matthew Desmond, now a professor of sociology at Princeton University, paid for college by fighting wildland fires. For his graduate work, he returned to study his former colleagues, and would later write in his book On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters, that “my crewmembers are much more than confident on the fireline. They are comfortable.” He quoted one firefighter as saying: “If you know, as a firefighter, how to act on a fire, how to approach it, this and that, I mean you’re, yeah, fire can hurt you. But…if you can soak up the stuff that has been taught to you, it’s not a dangerous job.”
Can we expect fires to get worse?
Fires in the American west are likely to get worse before they get better.
Some relief will come in the form of a $2.25 billion fund created by Congress to cover emergency firefighting costs, which frees up Forest Service money for fire prevention (the Forest Service spent nearly $3 billion on fire suppression efforts last year). California’s legislature created its own $1 billion fund over the next five years to thin its forests through a combination of cutting and controlled burning. But it will take many years, or even decades, for the program to reduce enough of the accumulated vegetation to reduce the region’s fire risk. At the same time, global warming is turning the west’s forests into dry kindling ready to ignite in the next catastrophic blaze.
Stephens hopes this month’s deadly blazes will be a wake-up call. “We’re going to be living in a hotter, drier California,” says Stephens. “Let’s prepare for the climate this is giving us a glimpse of.”