Sep 03, 2015

Story of Kelly Coughlin

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From my vantage point, as a wildland firefighter and someone who has served in the same fire lookout for many years, I can see the seasons are shifting. I’ve fought fire in Colorado, Oregon, California, Nevada and Washington. You could say that when it comes to fire, I’ve seen quite a bit. I see the climate is changing.

For me, fighting fires is my happy place – when I'm so tired and sore I can barely think or move, when everything I own is caked with mud and dust, when I can't get the smoke scent out of my skin, and my feet are beat up. For some reason, that's just the way I'm made. But that doesn’t mean my family and friends don’t worry when I’m out fighting these fires, or that I don’t worry for myself as the blazes I face become bigger and bigger still.

In the thirteen years I’ve been fighting fires, I’ve participated in the largest fires in the histories of three different states, as well as served as an emergency firefighter during a string of fires that lasted 100 days in Central Texas as temperatures reached over 100 degrees. These changes are apparent when I see leaves drying up and dying on the branches of trees before changing color for fall, or when I see that local bears look mangy, thin and stressed. As someone who loves the forest, these changes – both the subtle and the striking – are heartbreaking to witness.

I served as lookout at Dutchman Peak Lookout in Southern Oregon between 2009 and 2014. From Dutchman, one can see Mt. Shasta to the Southeast, Mt. McGloughlin to the East, as well as lowlands not blocked by mountains on the Klamath, Winema, and High Cascades Zone of our own Forest. It’s a beautiful spot to be. One can also see the shocking changes to the climate – like two access points normally completely blocked by snow until late June that are now totally bare.

Back in 2009, there were nesting birds near the lookout, abundant deer and raptors, and more butterfly species than I could count. By 2011, I stopped seeing deer at the lookout. Where were the nesting birds? The larger hawks seemed oddly diminished in number. By August, the air was filled with smoke from large fires.

July 4 is typically when fire season starts in that region, but in 2012 and 2013, we opened Dutchman Peak half a month early. Moisture was at low levels not normally seen until August.  Fire season hit hard. The air filled with so much smoke from surrounding large fires both near and far, that there were days and nights I wore a face mask when I went outside to take weather readings. The numbers and diversity of wildlife, birds and butterflies were even scarcer than the previous year. The area seemed drier all around; in fact, you can actually hear when the ground foliage starts to dry out; the wind creates a rustling paper type sound that seems to start overnight.

In 2014, Dutchman Peak Lookout opened even earlier, on June 3. The snow was already disappearing, and later snow disappeared completely almost a month early for McGloughlin; a glacier melted and broke loose, creating flooding near Mt. Shasta. Fire season hit early, with small fires turning into big ones right away. Deer and many birds, flowers and butterflies were almost completely absent.

When I started my fire career, the West was at the tail end of what they were calling an eight-year drought cycle. There was an emerging trend for fires to be larger, faster moving and more unpredictable. But it’s now 2015 and the drought conditions persist; it seems what was once a cycle, is now part of a new reality. We’re experiencing one of the the worst fire seasons to date; the U.S. Forest Service is approaching an all-time record for firefighting costs of $1.65 billion. This is more than a drought cycle; years of warmer temperatures, lower snowpack, and drier conditions – due to climate change – all compound to create perilous conditions for our firefighters, smoke-filled skies, unhealthy air for our most vulnerable community members, and a major threat to the way of life for those who live nearby. At a time when we need firefighters more than ever, some may decide the job is just too dangerous.

In 2015, I started fire season in Colorado, was deployed to Oregon, and then to a fire in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington. New fires seem to pop up this year so quickly that it’s hard to know where I’ll be sent next. But I do know that we’re giving everything we’ve got to protect what we love, and it’s going to take all of us to stop climate change and keep our forests safe.