PROFESSIONAL FIRE FIGHTING IS A WHOLE-YEAR JOB
One of the global challenges for our wildfire community is how to advance the concept of wildland firefighter professionalism around the world. In the United States, we are accustomed to levels of established fire response – from local fire departments to state agencies and federal resources – but other countries are just starting on this response journey. Agencies and organizations in these countries need to ensure that firefighters understand the specific risks of wildfire in their environments, have the right personal protective equipment, and respond to fires with the best operational safety standards in mind.
Recently, the national government in Spain established a National Accreditation on the Role of Wildland Firefighters. With this accreditation, wildland fire fighting will be recognized as a profession with defined job descriptions, set working hours, and operational models. This milestone came after years of requests from the national firefighting community and finally was recognized after the catastrophic fires in Spain in 2022. Previously in Spain, wildland firefighters were considered forest workers, quite often seasonal, and underpaid for their efforts. This new recognition brings hope to the goal of seeing wildland fire fighting at least at the same level as urban first responders. Additionally, this accreditation will help build skills and capabilities for wildland firefighters to best to respond to the evolving threat of wildfire across Spain and Europe in general.
Countries facing growing wildfire threats need to have recognition systems for wildland firefighters, not only for operational safety but to make sure they receive proper support. In all countries, there are issues such as firefighter mental health and exposure to toxins that cause diseases like those experienced by miners; the impact of these issues on the lives of firefighters and their families must be considered.
Wildland fire fighting also needs to be designated as a year-round job, as firefighting seasons need to be followed by fire resilience seasons. Too often, so-called seasonal firefighters are relied on to deal with what is wrongly assumed to be a short-term risk. We know that wildfire is now a year-round threat in many places and that training must be actively maintained. Firefighters who maintain a year-round focus on wildfire can ensure more resilient landscapes through preventative work in quieter times and better response when smoke is in the air. Wildland fire fighting is a whole-year job.
It is important, though, that support for the professionalism of wildland firefighters comes from the public first and then from local and national governments, whereas agencies can maintain the valuable connection of firefighters to their communities and the goals of local land management. We should also view professional wildland fire fighting through the lens of rural job development and community resilience. This issue is as important in the United States as it is around the globe. There are local lessons from countries in Europe, Latin America, and Southern Africa that can help advance this effort.
Finally, in May, the 8th International Wildland Fire Conference in the city of Porto, Portugal, will bring wildfire practitioners and researchers together from around the globe to share knowledge and address pressing needs in local governance around wildfire preparedness and response. This quadrennial event is the premier global wildland fire conference and provides unique international reach for our community. I’m happy to say that our association is an institutional partner for the event, helping to advance promotional and advertising opportunities about the conference to our diverse and international membership.
Additionally, our association provided expert advice on conference topic development and in the selection of speakers who support the conference themes. We’re proud to play this role because we believe in the value of this event and in the collaboration of international voices and experiences. We will bring our perspectives to this great discussion and learn from the views of others as we all advance our community. After Porto, our association will help advance the post-show recommendations, ensuring that the great words spoken there are put into action everywhere.
My first exposure to this conference was in 2007 when it was hosted in Seville, Spain; that was the start of a trip that changed my life, as it was when my friend Russ Johnson, a former Type 1 incident commander working for ESRI told me, “Hey, you should come to the United States.” Life-changing events happen when we meet.
The nature of wildfire is changing globally, and we need to ensure that our firefighters have the professional support required as we ask them to put their lives in danger on our behalf. This June is the 10-year anniversary of the tragic Yarnell Hill Fire that took the lives of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots as they were overrun by fire in shifting wind conditions. I think improved technology can bring great value to providing a safer environment for firefighter operations, individual tracking, and advanced situational awareness.
As we enter high wildfire danger in the global north, lessons from the 8th International Wildland Fire Conference will deepen the advocacy we all can do as a global wildfire community to ensure a safer environment for all.
About The Author
Joaquin Ramirez Cisneros is a wildland fire technologist who has been working for the last 25 years to bridge the gap between scientists and end users. In 2013, Ramirez moved to San Diego from Spain, and now works with agencies worldwide trying to convert the best science into actionable tools. Ramirez is the creator of several of the most advanced fire behavior software model implementations and decision support systems, including the Wildfire Analyst and fiResponse software tools. Since 2011, Ramirez has co-ordinated the first European M.S. in Forest Fires (www.masterfuegoforestal.es) with Prof. Rodriguez Francisco y Silva (UCO) and Prof. Domingo Molina (UdL). Ramirez is a founder and active member of the Pau Costa Foundation. He earned his PhD in remote sensing and GIS at the University of Leon in 2003, an M.S. in forestry from the University of Lleida, and his B.S. in forest engineering from the Polytechnical University of Madrid, Spain.