Jan 15, 2020

The future of firefighting

Erica Pandey, author of @Work

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The world is entering the age of extreme fire — and we're increasingly unprepared for it.

The big picture: As we've seen in Australia, California and the Amazon, fires are burning hotter, longer and more frequently around the world. Our resources to suppress them are stretched dangerously thin. And even though the wildfires are getting worse, the way we fight them hasn't changed in a century.

"There's no such thing as a fire season anymore," says Fernanda Santos, a former New York Times reporter and author of "The Fire Line." "There has to be a rethinking of the way we fight fires."

What's happening: Even with help from seasonal workers, student volunteers, inmates and more, the crews that fight wildfires are often understaffed, says Don Whittemore, former assistant chief of the Rocky Mountain fire department.

  • And as the fires intensify, there are more and more job openings to fight them. Fire-related job searches are surging in Australia, per a Hiring Lab analysis — meaning there are people who are looking to join the firefighting forces.
  • Still, firefighting is "more of a guild than a profession," says Stephen Pyne, a fire historian. It requires intensive trainings — and even apprenticeships — that soak up time and money.
  • The scarcity of fire crews is also giving rise to private firefighting teams for hire for the wealthy, reports the New York Times.

What's next: In the face of bigger fires and labor shortages, firefighters are turning to technology to help. They now use 747s and air tankers, which help give firefighters a break, "but at the end of the day all fires need to stopped on the ground," says Whittemore.

  • Experts say one new tool that would make a big difference is GPS locators for fighters (they currently use radios to communicate, but often run into dead zones while on the job). If commanders in control centers could track exactly where crew members are, they could keep them safer and get smarter about fighting fires.
  • Crews have also gotten better at mapping the fires themselves and predicting their paths. That's been helpful for crews to plan how to attack the blazes
  • And some researchers haven't given up on moonshot ideas. XPRIZE, a California company, has teamed up with the state to solicit proposals and award multimillion dollar grants to researchers who want to develop a system to detect and suppress a wildfire within five minutes, Whittemore tells Axios.

But fire equipment has hardly evolved because there isn't much that these new technologies and techniques can do in the face of extreme fire. "We won't win an arms race with fire," says Pyne.

  • There's too much money going toward fighting the fires and not enough toward educating communities on how to prepare their families and their houses for the blazes, Santos says.
  • According to Pyne, over half of all mega-fires are started by humans — and those can be prevented.

The bottom line: The stakes of complacency in firefighting and prevention can't be overstated, experts tell us. "Our combustion practices are adding up to create the fire equivalent of the ice age," Pyne says. "Australia may be the first continent to feel it at scale."

Go deeper: U.S. wildfires scorched 4.6 million acres of land in 2019

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