Wildfires have a dangerous new normal thanks to climate change

Ask the average American when they’ll feel the effects of climate change, and many will tell you that the harm lives in the future, in the 2100s. Ask firefighters in the American West, and they’ll tell you that they felt the effects yesterday, feel them today, and will feel them tomorrow. This video, “Unacceptable Risk — Firefighters on the Front Lines of Climate Change”, tells their story.

The climate is changing, due to humankind’s massive emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. As the gases trap heat, the temperature rises, sapping moisture from the vast forests of the West, leaving them as no more than large swaths of kindling, primed for a burn. Where over the last twenty years, wildfires were a nuisance, that lasted as long as 10 days at worst, firefighters in California and Colorado are experiencing a dangerous “new normal”: wildfires that stretch on for months, devouring everything in sight. Wildfires so big that the fire teams don’t risk their lives to save property.

Over the past 5 years, the “most destructive wildfire” record has been raised four times.

The fire crews of Colorado (once dubbed “the Asbestos State” due to the rarity of wildfires) are still acclimating to the dangerous changes to their job. Don Whittemore, a 22-year veteran firefighter, says, “We’re seeing a level of fire and an intensity of fire and a risk to firefighters that hasn’t existed in the past. On a day-to-day basis we’re being surprised — and in this business, surprise is what kills people.”

The fire departments cannot recruit fast enough to keep up with the ever-accelerating fire intensity, to the point that some have stopped addressing the gigantic fires altogether if the area has already been evacuated, seeing the risk-return ratio as too high. “The public can’t have an expectation anymore that we’re going to…kill good people trying to save infrastructure that we put into place that probably shouldn’t be there”, said James Schanel, Colorado Springs Battalion Chief and 30-year veteran. “In this new environment: dry, arid, drought-stricken area with lots of fuel, we’re going to have to change the way we live in it”.

As these wildfires sweep across the West, they release millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, which in turn fuel this dangerous cycle of warming and will create even more dangerous fires next season.