Over the past two weeks you may have noticed forest fires headlining the news. Particularly land, homes, and lives in Northern California, Portugal, and Spain have been devastated. Although the ignition of these fires is often attributed to human activity (eg. the ol’ flick of the cigarette butt on the ground), evidence suggests that climate change has been increasing the length of the fire season, the size of the area burned each year and the number of wildfires. With greenhouse gas emissions warming the atmosphere, forested-regions are becoming warmer and drier, the perfect recipe for uncontrolled fire. These fires are a huge threat to biodiversity. Not only are huge areas of natural habitat wiped out, but the land left behind becomes at risk of erosion and the water streams at risk of ash-pollution. We believe in a collective responsibility to mitigate these impacts of climate change and conserve our planet for future generations.
As part of our Ten Trees program, we are working with the National Forest Foundation in the US to reforest woodland fire-affected areas with native tree species. Luckily there are incredibly brave fire-fighters working tirelessly to contain the spreading flames. We had the opportunity to speak to one of them, Lina Montopolis, who fights wildland fires with the US Forest Services. She gave us a little insight into her day-to-day bad-ass-ness.
1) How did you get into fire-fighting and how long have you been doing it? What is the organisation you're working with?
After graduating from college in Pennsylvania, and receiving quite a few rejected job applications in my field of international development, I went on a three month road trip that spat me out in Colorado. I was extremely lucky to stumble upon an internship at Rocky Mountain National Park. While working with the volunteer program there, I was introduced to the concept of wildland firefighting. After hearing about what the job entails, and working a little bit with the fire crew there, I knew I wanted to spend at least a few years in the profession. I currently work for the US Forest Service, but wildland firefighters can be federally employed, or work through a private contractor.
2) What's a typical day like for you?
Day-to-day variability is really high in this job, which is part of what appealed to me! You have to be able to remain flexible because the plan is always changing. This year, for example, we traveled to Missouri to help with flood relief work at the beginning of the season before the wildfires started out west.
As far as firefighting goes, the range of assignments varies hugely. Some days, we’ll spend a full shift (16+ hours) using chainsaws and hand tools to construct a fireline, which creates a break in the fuels. Other days, we'll do burnout operations off of a constructed fuel break to remove the fuel ahead of the fire. On large fires, as the fire becomes more manageable, we’ll work on putting in hoses and using water to completely put out the edge, so that the fire cannot continue to grow and cross our lines. All of this takes the coordination of many resources — engines, helicopters, heavy equipment, hand crews, smokejumpers, etc.
3) What inspires you to do what you do?
On really demanding days, it can be difficult to remember some of the amazing perks of this job, but I try to return to the reasons why I wanted to do it in the first place. The ability to spend the summer months working outside, hiking to places that other people will never get to see, and being able to look back over a piece of land and see the immediate results of demanding physical labor, are all huge rewards. From time to time, we get to meet homeowners or members of the public who have directly benefitted from our work, and those interactions inspire me to keep pushing forward.
4) Are the frequency of forest fires increasing in the US? Why?
Yes, the intensity and number of wildfires is increasing due to climate change. Historically, the focus on wildfires has been to completely suppress them. That approach has now changed, but the absence of those low intensity fires throughout history has created a less healthy forest environment and an increase in the risk of large fires now. Some ecosystems require fire for stand health, regeneration of native species, and the creation of an open seedbed. Others, such as tropical rainforests, which have generally had very little fire activity, are not adapted to the presence of wildfire, and the biodiversity in these ecosystems can suffer greatly when fire does come through.
Most fires in the United States are started by humans, not by natural causes, which can result in the presence of fire in non-adapted environments. The fires we work on definitely impact properties. Great effort is put into structure protection, and the number one priority on any fire incident is to provide for firefighter and public safety. It is very rare, but there are instances where fires move very quickly, and civilian lives are put at risk. Although burn overs are really infrequent, respiratory issues caused by poor air quality for extended periods of time can definitely be an issue.
6) What's the craziest experience you've had so far?
Every single fire is unique, which makes them all crazy in their own way, but I’d have to say that working on a fire in Alaska that was right next to the community I used to live in was pretty mind boggling. I spent a summer up there, working on a small farm, and our daily drive to the fire, three years after my time on the farm, would pass by the parking lot where I used to spend Saturdays at the market selling veggies and baked goods. That experience really made me understand that, although it’s sometimes difficult to remember when it feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere just hacking away at the dirt, there is a visible importance and result to our work.
Thank you so much for speaking to us, Lina!
Till next time...