Nineteen fire fighters were killed yesterday as they were overrun by a lightning-sparked fire in Arizona. This consisted of the entire crew as deployed to fight the Yarnell Hill Fire near Phoenix, Arizona. The best way to honor these fallen heroes, from afar and from the perspective of fellow citizens, is to demand that more support be given to their efforts (by ending the Republican Sequester) and to acknowledge that their job has been made much harder because of global warming induced increases in wild fire frequency and severity.
Global warming is on track to double the number of wild fires in the US by 2050, but very few predictions of this type have panned out over the last ten years. Usually, the degree of severity of climate effects from global warming is much larger than predicted, or comes sooner than predicted. Some people try to push responsibility for more fires off on bad management practices, but this, while it may be a factor, is a) old news and addressed in many areas decades ago; b) pales in comparison to the effects of drought and c) pales in comparison to massive tree death which in turn is exacerbated if not simply directly caused by anthropogenic climate change.
Climate change increases wild fire frequency and severity via a number of different mechanisms (as described here). We have known for some time that global warming would change weather patterns in a way that increases the amount of burn in already dry areas such as the American Southwest and Australia. A while back it was postulated that warming in the Arctic would have this as a direct effect. And this has all come to pass in the last few years. Recently, the chief of the US Forest Service reminded Congress that climate change is the reason for the recent uptick in wild fires. I think we still have to see what effect, if any, the Republican Sequester will have on fire fighting and safety to communities and fire fighters alike.
There is an interesting meme going around, that fire fighter deaths have been declining in recent years. This is cited along side the news of the 19 who died yesterday. But that figure is for fire fighters in general, not wild fire fighters specifically, and since the data don’t include the last two years, which have been particularly bad, they may be misleading. (In the case I link to, USA Today, the 9/11 attacks are said to have occurred in 2011, so clearly, the report put together by John Bacon, is very poorly done generally.)
Between April 1990 and August 2011, 319 firefighters had died on duty in addressing fires in wild lands. According to the US Fire Administration, 47 firefighters died during the five year period 2007 and 2011 (inclusively), 91 between 2002 and 2006, 83 between 1997 and 2001, 66 between 1992 and 2001, 32 between 1987 and 1991. A the sequence 32-66-83-91-47 is not a downward trend. Unfortunately, I don’t have good data on the number of fire fighters killed for annual 2011 and 2012, and we are obviously early in the year for 2013.