Firefighters already spend the key moments of their professional lives on the brink, sweating profusely in scorched rooms and inferno fields. The last thing they need is for anyone to crank up the heat any further. But sure enough, climate change is poised to make life even more hellish for firefighters.
Studies from NASA, the American Geophysical Union, and many others pretty clearly show that global climate change is leading to increasingly frequent and severe fires. So more frequent droughts and higher temperatures are turning vast swathes of our wood-filled world into kindling. Unlucky lightening strikes and chucked cigarette butts are more of a hazard in our 400 ppm world than they ever were before.
And more and more frequent fires also mean strained resources—and more peril for firefighters. In June, 19 firefighters perished while battling a spreading blaze in Arizona. The State Forestry Division just published a detailed account of the events leading up to the tragedy, which was the largest loss of life in an American fire department in decades. The documents reveal that the unit, known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots, repeatedly requested more air support. The planes never arrived, however, because they were busy battling another fire in the region.
This photo, which caused some controversy when it was shared widely after being taken off of a family member's Facebook page, is a grim reminder of the dangers firefighters face. The Hotshots' bodies were laid out atop the charred earth of Yarnell Hill, where the fire overtook them and left the rocks black.
It's impossible to say that these fires were directly caused by climate change, though a number of op-eds were published to that effect. But the science is straightforward that fire seasons are getting worse. A University of Arizona study which found that "large forest fires have occurred more often in the western United States since the mid-1980s as spring temperatures increased, snow melted earlier, and summers got hotter, leaving more and drier fuels for fires to devour."
Meanwhile, NASA says that we can expect to see two to four catastrophic fire seasons—akin to the epic blazes of 2012—every decade by mid-century.
As a result, firefighting will become both more dangerous and more important in the future. It will be a deadly time to be a firefighter, sure, and the hazard pay will be through the roof—and without them, there might not be much in the way of inhabited structures in the Midwest and California.
Firefighters would be lucky if their new warming-induced hell ended there. But fire departments don't just fight fires. They respond to medical emergencies, too—like heat waves.
For instance, the Fire Department of New York's Emergency Medical Service is the biggest pre-hospital care provider in the world. Known as the FDNY EMS Command, it responds to 1.3 million emergency calls every year. In the summer, a large number of those calls are related to health woes stemming from the sweltering weather—especially when we're in the middle of heat wave.
The city is officially in the middle of an "oppressive" heat wave as I type this out—the first related death was registered on July 17th. The day before that, leading mayoral candidate Christine Quinn lambasted the FDNY for taking 31 minutes to respond to a heat exhaustion call—after it was contacted by police commissioner Ray Kelly. One of Quinn's interns had fallen victim to heatstroke, and even the candidate's clout wasn't enough to get the firefighters there
"We were not prepared for today's heat wave," she said, according to Gothamist. "That girl should not have had to wait 31 minutes. This cannot be the standard in New York City."
Unfortunately, it is. But it's not the firefighters' fault. The FDNY defended itself, arguing that since the girl was conscious and breathing, she was a "low priority." Which sounds callous until you consider the fact that heat wave-battling emergency responders face a similar fundamental plight as do those forest firefighters in a warming world: more disasters and thinning resources. This is clear in the FDNY's statement responding to Quinn's allegations.
"With a high volume of calls during extreme heat, a call for a non-life threatening injury with an alert patient being treated by a trained EMT is appropriately not deemed a high priority," it said, and that "means that it takes longer for an ambulance to get to the scene. But it is critical that life-saving resources be prioritized and used for high-priority, life threatening incidents.”
Indeed. And climate change will stress those life-saving resources, too. In the last three to four decades, studies have documented an increasing trend in high-humidity heat waves, which are the worst, because it means the hell-heat hangs on through the night. The lack of relief can prove deadly for the ill and the elderly.
Heat waves are, in fact, one of our deadliest natural disasters.
"No one should die from a heat wave, but every year on average, extreme heat causes 658 deaths in the United States," says Robin Ikeda, the director of the National Center for Environmental Health. That's more than tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and lightning combined. And climate change means there will be more of them, and that they may be even hotter and deadlier than before.
And they're not just dangerous to the elderly, but to the firefighters, too.
On July 7th, before the heat wave struck, News 10 reported that NYC's Assistant Fire Chief James Hughs was worried about the safety of his team as temps continued to swelter.
"I was very concerned over my guys because our gear, even though it's designed to breathe, it doesn't breathe that we'll," Chief Hughs told News 10. "It's designed to keep the heat off us but it keeps our body heat in." He added that being unable to cool down in full gear can be "extremely" dangerous.
All told, fire departments around the world stand to be overworked, resource-strained, and more consistently imperiled. It doesn't help that budgets are getting slashed, too—Bloomberg's latest budget would shrink the FDNY to its smallest size in a decade. It's hard to imagine a profession that will become more nightmarish as climate change rolls on.