Mar 18, 2016

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I’ve worked on wildfires all across Oregon and the west. My work has included being a crew member on district engines, small modules focused on a fire’s initial attack, and on an Interagency Hotshot Crews, a specialized crew trained to respond to the most remote and potentially difficult fires. Throughout my career I’ve worked on small fires that started by lightning, and large fires with several thousand people involved that take weeks or months to manage as part of a long-term plan. Many wildland firefighters only work for a summer or two, but I’ve been doing this for nearly a decade.

One of the things we do to prepare for fire season is meet with meteorologists. They talk to us about that year’s weather patterns so we have an idea of where extreme weather may occur. These meteorologists have strongly suggested that global warming is influencing the development of the fires we fight. Specifically by worsening the droughts that make fires more intense. The fact that Portland has experienced its warmest winter this year is a very worrisome sign. Our warm weather now is indicative of a drought, and that could mean an earlier start to fire season in Oregon. Typically seasonal firefighters work on fires from May through October, depending on the severity of the season.

Oregon had a record-breaking fire season last year. The meteorologists say climate change makes fire season harder to predict. Every year is more unpredictable than the previous one. Unpredictable conditions and extreme weather make our jobs more dangerous. You don’t want to charge into the mouth of a fire when you don’t know what it will do next. The tragedy in Arizona in 2013 when 19 firefighters were killed is a haunting reminder of that.

I worked on a fire a few years ago so intense and so big that there were 2,000 people on the ground fighting it. One of the things we notice is how wildfires affect surrounding communities. These fires pose an impact to rural Oregonians, anyone who loves hiking or camping, and individuals with respiratory problems – they are the ones most affected.

More intense, unpredictable fires means we have to back off and watch them. They burn days longer, spewing toxic smoke into faraway towns and cities, creating a haze none of us can avoid. As firefighters, we’re faced with the need to manage the fire and put it out, while also accounting for the huge influx of firefighter injuries and deaths. Climate change is simply not disputed in our work. We know it’s real. It’s affecting people like me, making an already dangerous job even more perilous.

Chris Ashby, Wildland Firefighter