When a vegetation fire burns vegetation — grass, brush, trees or a mix — we act as fire managers, fire responders, firefighters and medics — the whole array of ICS roles we’ve been trained for. When a vegetation fire burns into and becomes a conflagration of structures, we work all our regular roles and add the urgency of evacuation managers. We’re the ones who save lives, the ones who witness lost homes (sometimes the firefighters’ own homes). And sometimes we mourn those who have lost their lives to the fire. Some of this we’ve trained for, but who can truly prepare for the destruction seen in the Camp Fire?
Our habit of naming fires has become another way to toll the bell that tolls for us all. The Camp Fire tolls in Paradise, the Woolsey Fire tolls in Malibu. Before that, flames destroyed communities, and lives were lost, from California to Greece, from Portugal to South Africa. Now Australia is burning as are so many places beyond our focus.
This issue of Wildfire comes too soon afterwards to directly address these most immediate losses — so here, in the Briefing that frames each issue, we offer our condolences and support for you who have lost family, friends, colleagues, homes, communities. To which we add our faith that you — survivors and firefighters — will be supported by those around you. And our commitment that our profession, and our institutions and governments, will support you.
We also offer compassion and support for our colleagues who have worked these fires, and those who have worked all the fires. The work we do is rewarding but takes its toll, regardless of the scale of the fire. But it’s this challenge, season after season, during our working lives and often in retirement, that helps us build our sense of “best practices.” We use our after-action evaluations to ask if we could do it better, safer next time, and we seek help from our fire-scientist colleagues. After all, what is the our most basic concept — the fire triangle — but science, put to the ground.
Like most firefighters, we at Wildfire are committed to the insights and application of fire science. Last issue we examined how fire science helps us live with wildfire. In this issue, two recently retired fire-science managers (one a past president of IAWF) observe that unified fire science in the US (in the form of the Joint Fire Science Program) is being threatened by budget cuts that can only be thought of — considering the huge losses we’ve faced from wildfires — as either petty, misguided or cruel.
In this issue we offer examples of how fire science pays off — in the form of a wildfire-smoke primer crafted by a writer from the Centers for Disease Control, and in an interview of a firefighter-turned-scientist, Sara Brown, who’s our Fired Up honoree for this issue. These are just two examples of fire science dividends, the knowledge that helps us manage fire more effectively and build safety into our work and our communities.
Wildfire management and science occurs within our governance and social systems, which holds relevant discussions about funding priorities and an analysis of which approaches work best and where. But has this happened, in the public sphere? To cut wildfire science programs — when our communities are burning, smoke and fire risks are increasing, and people are dying — is simply bad logic, and bad-hearted to boot.
Beyond science, this issue continues to share insights about who we are as a community of fire professionals. In particular, we examine the role of gender and diversity in our profession, including initiatives that seek to engage the work and insights of women into our fire management and fire science workforce. Journalist Emily Wolfe observes that a more diverse workforce won’t change the physics of the fire triangle but may “change how we interact with fire.”
In another reflection on gender and fire, we share a preview and reflection on a new documentary, “Wildland.” Our essayist-reviewer examines the life lessons learned as an all-male 20-person fire crew works the firelines of the US West. The film follows young men who face the challenge of fire (and thus take steps toward managing their own lives), and Amanda (Stamper) Rau examines their story while reflecting on her own experiences as a woman building a role in what’s been a male-dominated field.
All these reflections remind us: our profession is a community and a part of the larger communities we serve — and our workforce becomes stronger when we include those community members we serve.
And we need all our strength. Some we serve are hurting, and some of our own profession too. In the past year, colleagues have shared news of survival, their houses spared while the homes of neighbors burnt. And in these past weeks, friends have lost houses — the photo above shows the scorched trees of Paradise but only the foundations of homes, one of which was a friend’s. As we go to press, the death toll is 85, with 11 missing, and 14,000 homes burned.
Amid the shock of this destruction, a few of our leaders appear to trivialize and politicize. The burned town of Paradise was mislabeled “Pleasure” at a time when neither word fit. The accepted and essential science of climate change has been demeaned, and grand-standing displaces (temporarily, we hope) the authentic, science-based commitment to the cohesive strategies we need to manage our “wicked-problem” wildfires.
This issue features fire science and smoke, women and men — a community of voices, speaking differently and thus enriching our ability to listen — and listening, I sense, may give us the heart we need to bridge our way into our profession’s future, and to speak and act against the bullies, harassers and nonsense that undercut us.
It is our commitment to action that Paradise deserves. Our best memorial is to act for our profession, so the next Camp Fire won’t toll so many bells.
The rains have come to Paradise, the fires out and the risk of flood rising, and recovery begins. We help where we can, with donations or in-person, and seek to learn from your fortitude, you who have survived the Camp Fire — since some day we may all need help to find a route through the burning hours and hot seasons ahead.