US firefighters in California. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/SANDY HUFFAKER
US firefighters in California. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/SANDY HUFFAKER

Geyserville — Firefighter Joe Stewart steered his pickup truck through the redwood trees, pointing out charred remains of homes, barns and hunting cabins amid the blackened tree trunks and ashen soil of the latest wildfire.

With worsening waves of fires ravaging northern California, the loss of just hundreds of homes has come to signal success, he said.

The latest fire to scorch the area — the Kincade blaze in Sonoma County’s tourist-draw wine country, put to rest just days ago — burned nearly 32,400ha and destroyed more than 370 structures.

Several other fires burned to the south and to the north over the same period — and the Kincade blaze came just two years after a nearby spate of wind-driven wildfires north of the San Francisco Bay area killed 43 people.

Last year, 85 people died in another fire that swept into the northern California town of Paradise.

The persistent fires are dramatically shifting firefighters’ views of what’s possible in fighting them, said Stewart, a fire department captain in Geyserville, a tiny town at the edge of the grassy hills, redwood forests and vineyards where the blazes roared.

“We keep having these intense fires that are supposed to be once-in-a-lifetime fires, and now we’ve had five of them in the last couple of years,” he said. “You have 200 homes destroyed. Five years ago, that would have been crazy. Losing 200 now was a win. It was a victory that no-one died. It affects what we define as a success. The next fire we might lose 500 homes and still say it’s a victory.”

Firefighters say drier conditions — which scientists attribute to climate shifts — are bringing longer and more intense fire seasons, driven in part by more flammable vegetation and hotter winds.

Extreme weather and climate-linked disasters — including October’s California wildfires — have cost more than $1bn in damage this year in the US, nearly double the average between 1980 and 2018, according to the National Centres for Environmental Information.

The increase in fires prompted 10% of insurers to refuse to renew policies in wildfire-prone areas in California in 2018, according to the state separtment of insurance.

“It’s like it’s just going to happen. There’s nothing we can do about it. Mother Nature is going to win every single time,” said Bud Pochini, a volunteer firefighter in nearby Knights Valley. He lost his own home in a 2017 fire. “I don’t know if the anxiety can get worse. I’m up about 5kg [in body weight] right now from the beginning of this fire because I eat. That’s my coping mechanism.” 

Growing stress

A study published in May found nearly half of US firefighters are likely to be experiencing burnout and related health problems such as sleep troubles, emotional fatigue and exhaustion.

The researchers questioned more than 6,300 firefighters at 66 fire departments in the study, published in the Journal of Sleep Research.

In Los Angeles, the fire department and firefighters’ union recently expanded mental health services with behavioural experts [and] peer counseling

“For me, myself, I always wear my shades,” said Derrick Hart, a firefighter from Salem, Oregon, who was taking a break at a staging area in Santa Rosa after fighting the Kincade fire for a week. “So when I get teary-eyed, I try to hide it. But the emotions get there.” 

In October, California governor Gavin Newsom signed into law measures designed to help firefighters and first responders with mental health threats and post-traumatic stress. The measures created peer support programmes and added post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as an injury eligible for workers’ compensation benefits.

Firefighters and first responders “can experience high-stress situations and traumatic incidents that can push them to the limit both physically and mentally”, the governor said in a statement.

In Los Angeles, the fire department and firefighters’ union recently expanded mental health services with behavioural experts, peer counseling and a campaign to help eliminate stigma around seeking help.

“Sometimes you see stuff you can’t get out of your mind,” said Stewart. “The more exposure you have to it, the more instances there are that could trigger PTSD.” Working to stave off the next fire helps, he said.

The fire department in Geyserville has received two state grants totaling about $1m to clear roadsides of thick brush and low-hanging tree limbs in an effort to keep flames from reaching the tree-top canopy.

In spots where the department cleared brush in recent months, the Kincade blaze was kept from crossing roads, he said. “It worked. It might have held on its own, you never know, but we really do feel that made a difference.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation