When my colleague Matt Richtel reached out to me early in March 2016 to pick my brain on the best way to talk about wildfires in the context of global warming, I knew the story to tell, one I had heard from scientists and firefighters numerous times: Fires, once confined to a season, now burn year round. The wildfires that broke out that month in Alaska and Northern Arizona, places that are usually cold and covered in snow in the winter, illustrate this point.
Wildfires are common in the late spring and early summer in the Southwest, when it is hot and dry, and also when lightning from the first monsoon storms strikes — and ignites — the parched ground. On the day the fire in Portugal turned deadly, there were at least 13 wildfires burning in Arizona. I had my eye on them, knowing what it takes for a wildfire to become news.
There are many differences between structure fires (like the recent one in London) and wildfires, and the people who fight them need entirely different training and skills. While water extinguishes flames burning a building, trails that firefighters carve in the wild — barren strips of land devoid of anything that burns — stop a wildfire.
That is a basic distinction but an important one. I learned about it while covering a wildfire that killed 19 firefighters in Yarnell, Ariz., in 2013. And it got me wanting to learn more, especially about how climate influences fire behavior.
I wrote a book about the Arizona wildfire, and while researching it I talked to a lot of scientists who study the relationship between fire and climate. I took the basic training course at the Arizona Wildfire and Incident Management Academy, where I learned to cut fire line, read the weather and work in teams.
The academy is also where I learned the right questions to ask. Last year, as a wildfire destroyed the community of Fort McMurray, in Canada, a lot of people wondered why firefighters could not stop the flames. It is a common and understandable question, since we are used to watching firefighters put out building fires within hours.
But wildfires are a different beast, and fighting them is a game of chess. It requires adaptability and patience, as does reporting on firefighting. The littlest change in weather — say, wind that starts blowing in a different direction — forces firefighters to reassess their risks and redefine their strategies, and quickly.
The point I made in the story I wrote about the Fort McMurray fire was that some wildfires grow so big and so dangerous that they simply cannot be stopped.
Fighting wildfires is backbreaking work: Firefighters work for 14 days straight, 16 hours a day, pounding the earth on rocky, steep terrain, all while carrying 50 pounds of gear on their backs. They hike for miles just to get to where they need to start digging, a place that is usually so far away and so treacherous that reporters are rarely allowed by their side. That is why we hardly see these firefighters on the evening news.
Firefighters are plagued by exhaustion. They are pressured by residents and local elected officials who want them to focus on saving homes, even if that puts their lives at greater risk. And though wildfires have changed, they are still fighting them in much the same way they have for decades.
That is a global reality, but it is only part of the story. The land is another part. The fire in Portugal showed the consequences of land abandonment over time because of changes to the social and economic order in Europe. Small farmers left rural areas for cities. Their land, which used to be heavily grazed and cultivated, was left behind with no one to care for it. Ultimately, officials said the wildfire appeared to have been arson, not an uncommon cause for wildfires, which are mostly caused by humans, intentionally or otherwise.
The Times does not have a fire beat, but I guess I’m the closest thing to a fire reporter. At home, I have my own fire-resistant shirt and pants, and the boots required to fight wildfires. In 2014, I passed a physical test that is known as a pack test — a three-mile hike in under 45 minutes with 45 pounds on my back. It is a requirement for anyone who wants to join a wildland firefighting crew.
I don’t think my family would have been thrilled if I had quit my job to go fight wildfires, so I let my certification lapse. And, to be perfectly honest, I’d rather ride waves than battle flames: The day after I worked on the story about the Portugal fire, I escaped to Maui. But if any of the editors or reporters at The Times need help on a wildfire story, I’ll be glad to help out.
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