IIt was always going to be a tough year for California firefighters. Even before unusual summer lightning storms enlightened the state weeks earlier than expected and Covid-19 and the climate crisis turned into duel disasters, the firefighters were preparing for a season of record-breaking infernos in the west.
Now tired first responders are exposed to fires that burn hotter, faster, and more frequently than ever ̵
“I’ve never seen anything at this level,” said James Bowron, battalion chief of the Oakland Fire Department. In nearly three decades at work, he has never seen so many fires at the same time.
California had a violent and early start to the annual fire season. In the first week of September, a record 3.3 million acres went up in flames. That is 26 times more than the area that was burned at this point last year. Firefighters fight almost 30 large flames. Officials report that around 4,900 buildings were reduced to rubble and 24 people lost their lives. One of the victims is Diana Jones, a paramedic who volunteers for the Tehama firefight.
State officials said more than 14,800 first responders are fighting to contain the fires. “That’s a lot,” said Christine McMorrow, Resource Management Communications Officer at Cal Fire, “that’s all we have.”
The unprecedented scope and intensity caused by the simultaneous fires explosion have scattered crews thinly. Covid has added more complications as infections and quarantine requirements limit aid from other states and the number of crews that could otherwise potentially be deployed.
“This puts a strain on the system and brings us to a point where we may have almost broken the mutual aid system or exhausted it to the full,” Bowron said. When help stops, it means longer and more frequent trips for firefighters in the state who leave and those who stay to cover the stations at home.
California also typically relies on inmates to help fight wildfires. However, many have been locked or quarantined in state prisons due to Covid-19 outbreaks. McMorrow says they are two crews short.
Bowron had recently returned from a 14-day deployment fighting the SCU Lightning Complex fire, which began Aug. 18 and burned nearly 400,000 acres. He has now been used to lead a strike team at the El Dorado fire in San Bernardino.
“Covid and homeschool are an added stress,” he said. His wife works as a nurse in a hospital and they have three young daughters who are stuck at home. “You call home and the children say, ‘Dad, when are you coming home? ‘ It’s going to be difficult. Your children get used to disappointment, ”he said.
“My girls are getting older now and I’ve been doing this for a long time and we’ve always been very honest with them. They understand that our family must make sacrifices to keep other families safe and that it is important for society to move on – but it is not easy to go. “
“This year was tough for everyone”
It’s not just the number of fires burning at the same time and the lack of firefighters to fight them – the fires themselves are becoming increasingly difficult to fight.
With some fires in residential neighborhoods and others in remote areas where people who left cities amid Covid-19 have fled, Wildland crews trained to contain the flames have had to shift their focus to life save instead of property and acreage.
“We have to run to a fire, and then it’s not about protecting structures or starting a fire attack – it’s about getting people out,” said Vince Wells, a former fire chief who served the Contra Costa county, where the SCU Lightning was active in mid-August, a complex fire broke out. Wells recently retired but has a two-year term as president of the local firefighters union and vice president of California Professional Firefighters, an organization of more than 30,000 members. He hears firsthand experiences from firefighters and chiefs across the state.
“The times are unprecedented. Unfortunately, it’s not over yet, ”added Wells. “You used to think of fires from May to maybe October. But now we’re fighting fires on Christmas Day or next year. “
Warmer and drier conditions are expected in California through December this year, according to the US National Interagency Coordination Center, and this month’s incidents only mark the start of a “major fall fire season.” The crews face a long battle.
“This year has been tough for everyone,” said Dr. Mynda Ohs, a psychiatrist who works with first responders. “Covid, riots, a political year, people losing businesses and money. That’s just a normal life, and then you add fire season and fire equipment – they have to fight fires while their families still take care of it. “
She knows the tribute well, since her husband is a battalion chief. He had just returned from a 26-day deployment when she was sent to the fire line to help a team of 14 firefighters caught in the flames. They had to set up their last shelters, small foldable fireproof tents that firefighters can climb into when there is no way out. They survived, some with serious injuries.
Stationed under a dark, smoky sky in the camp near the Dolan fire, she said many firefighters had already come into the fight stressed out. “Because of what is going on in our personal life, people come this season. And then you have these record-breaking fires that are moving fast, our resources are so sparsely distributed that they are waiting for non-governmental resources and some are left in a hairy situation. “
“We know what we signed up for”
Camp life has also changed. In order to curb the spread of Covid-19 among crews and employees, everyone is trying to keep their distance. There are hand sanitizing stations, food is distributed in containers instead of a buffet, temperatures are measured regularly, and masks are mandatory around others. The adjustments themselves aren’t the problem, but they do affect the teams’ peer support system. “Sitting at the dining table, sitting in the warehouse – but that was removed because of Covid. People have to eat alone. They’re losing the natural support system they have, ”said Ohs.
Despite the precautions taken, firefighters across the state have fallen ill. At one point in March, more than 10% of all San Jose fire fighters were exposed to Covid-19. A Los Angeles Fire Department firefighter died after contracting the virus.
Fireman Edward Gonzalez, a 36-year-old equipment operator stationed in Van Nuys, Calif., Caught the virus in June and spread Covid-19 to his wife, who is eight months pregnant. They both recovered quickly and he was eager to go back to work. He’s grateful to have a job.
“We’re lucky enough to be able to work so much for us. I know the city is going to be under budget next year and a lot of things could be cut, ”explained Edward, smiling as he added extra shifts. He added that at the beginning of his career during the Great Recession in 2008 he saw many firefighters lose their jobs and their homes. He fears that it could happen again if the city budgets are cut next year. “I could see this happening to us – so I’m trying to prepare ourselves and our family.”
At the state level, California Governor Gavin Newsom made fire fighting a top priority and added $ 85.7 million to his latest budget to improve capacity expansion. The funding is the first phase of his plan to hire 600 more Cal Fire firefighters over the next five years. As cities tighten their belts, local stations could see cuts that put even more pressure on crews each year as the fires worsen.
Ohs said a postponement of mental health support was long overdue but urgently needed. The stigma of seeking help has only subsided in the past three to five years in response to what some believe is a growing mental health crisis in the dangerous occupation.
This year Newsom also signed two bills supporting the mental health of firefighters. Senate Bill 542 provides protection from post-traumatic stress injuries through employee compensation, and Congregation 1116 sets training guidelines for peer counseling and protects the confidentiality of those using behavioral health services.
Even under more difficult conditions, the firefighters do not withdraw from the fight. “I know people are reaching their limits,” Wells said. “We’re dealing with the heat, on top of a pandemic, on top of the large number of fires and the scarcity of resources.”
However, he knows that the crews will continue to face the challenge as long as they are asked to. “We know what we signed up for,” he said. “When we swear to serve our community, this is what everyone is committed to, to the best of their ability.”