The death of 19 firefighters should spur us to action on climate change

America mourns the 19 elite wilderness firefighters who died in Arizona a week ago Sunday. We all owe a debt of gratitude to the people who risk their lives in what is about the closest there is to hell on Earth. Yet we repay their service by making policy decisions, on climate change and urban development, that make their jobs more difficult, and all but ensure more firefighters will die.

The dead firefighters were part of an Arizona-based “Hotshot” team. Members of those teams are in peak physical condition, and specially trained to drop into remote areas that no one else can reach. Think of them as the special forces of federal firefighters.

According to early accounts, the tragedy unfolded so quickly nothing could be done. The winds changed, and the fire crashed onto the crew. Their emergency fire shelters did not save them.

The nation lost 19 brave men who risked their lives to protect precious national resources and communities. Their enemy does not wield a gun, or pilot an aircraft. They confront a primal force of nature unleashed in all its fury. Yet, usually they win.

Firefighters via Shutterstock

Firefighters via Shutterstock

It has been shown time and again that our public policy choices contribute to the ferocity and danger of wildfires.  Heat, drought and unpredictable wind surges fuel devastating wild fires, and all are symptoms of climate change. As the planet warms and climate patterns shift, extreme weather events, including fires in the West, become increasingly likely. More and worse blazes mean more firefighters put in danger.

We mourn the deadliest single American wildfire incident in 80 years, but one week after the tragic deaths, our country probably won’t change a thing.

President Barack Obama last week announced a few modest steps toward reducing the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions, but they were far short of what is needed. America fails to lead the world on this issue.

Property development patterns exacerbate the situation. When communities allow developers to build homes on the edges of forests, they court disaster. The situation is akin to homes built in coastal areas prone to hurricanes. Eventually, nature will strike. But unlike hurricanes, fires can be fought. Hotshots can cut a firebreak to save homes.

2007 Government Accountability Office study about wildfires noted that “continued development in the wildland-urban interface has placed more structures at risk from wildland fire at the same time that it has increased the complexity and cost of wildland fire suppression.”

Who wouldn’t want to live so close to nature, in a place where the wind whispers through towering pines, where the beach is steps away? The conflagration that killed the firefighters also burned down dozens of homes in Yarnell, a town of mostly retirees.

Firefighters, via Shutterstock

Firefighters, via Shutterstock

When fighting wilderness fires, protecting private property is a priority. If those homes and businesses were not located within the trees, firefighters could let trees burn until the blaze became more manageable. They could choose the best place to fight rather than the necessary one to prevent private losses by people who chose to build in a dangerous spot.

Fires also are more likely to start where people are. It only takes a stray spark from a barbecue or tossed cigarette.

Getting smarter about where we put up homes should be easier than confronting global climate change, but politics again get in the way. Lawmakers do not want to appear hostile to “property rights,” a favorite conservative cause-celebre.

Nonetheless, a tragedy like 19 dead firefighters should launch a national debate and serious policy changes. The deaths of these sons, brothers and fathers should galvanize action that will minimize future risk.

But if history is any guide, it won’t happen.

There will be speeches, some hand wringing, maybe even a bill or two introduced in a do-nothing Congress. Then the special interests and lobbyists will get involved and their elected minions will obey.

Death is insufficient motivation. Just ask the Sandy Hook families.

(Originally published on Joanne Bamberger’s (aka PunditMom) “The Broad Side,” cross-posted with permission.)


Christian Trejbal is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Ore. Overcoming graduate degrees in philosophy, he worked as an editorial writer at The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times for more than a decade. He serves as open government chairman and a member of the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal.

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  • klem

    “The death of 19 firefighters should spur us to action on climate change”

    Um no, it should spur us into giving them better training and equipment.

  • Brian A

    ….reading this reminded me to turn off the computer and go deal with reality.

  • samizdat

    Also of note is the fact that the fire in Coeur d’Alene, ID brought us the disastrous federal policy of absolute fire suppression, which has lead to many forests being choked with dead brush and excessive undergrowth. Conditions, ironically, which have lead to larger and more disastrous fires. The policy essentially solidified the perspective that the Federal forests are strictly for resource exploitation, to be measured in board-feet only.

    There has been a good deal of rethinking and policy change with regards to fire suppression, but to restore our forests to a state more closely aligned with the natural condition in which Europeans found them would cost in the multi-billions. Not likely to happen, when one notes the 6-8 BillionUSD shortfall in the National Park system’s infrastructure repair, maintenance and building needs.

  • mononucleosis

    mememine,
    You just took a verbal dump on the memory of 19 gallant people while making a specious argument against a real problem.
    You should be ashamed.

  • http://poodyheads.wordpress.com/ zorbear

    But the money is safe, right? Please tell me the money is safe!
    =-o

  • http://poodyheads.wordpress.com/ zorbear

    Wouldn’t he need consciousness first for that to apply?
    /snark

  • http://poodyheads.wordpress.com/ zorbear

    Then maybe someone should park an Ark on him and be done with it!
    /snark

  • DrDignity

    My sympathy to the families who remain behind. Please remember that we are now at 0,8 degrees C above pre-industrial temperature mean. The world is already witnessing the beginning of global change everywhere: super storms, droughts, floods, shrinking sea life, rising, warmer waters, coral bleaching, desertification & ocean acidification. Between 1-2 degrees C rise, there will be destabilising effects worldwide like more wildfires as the world loses 1/3 of its fresh water. The central states of the USA may experience a dustbowl again. Between 1-2 degrees C increase, the fun really begins: increased albedo effects at the poles will permit sunlight into dark, cold waters, altering currents & oxygenation. Permafrost melts at an increase rate, causing a positive feedback loop as methane & C02 rise into the atmosphere warming it in a non-linear, unpredictable manner. Huge boreal forests in Canada & Russia may burn out of control as might the Amazon. All that C02 & soot will likely increase world temperatures, all on their own without human consent. Large ice fields like those which are the sources for the world’s large rivers many also narrow & run dry. Imagine the destabilisation of China, Pakistan, India & Bangladesh as new climate refugees hunt for political stability, water, food & fuel. All that in the very near future if we continue to populate & carbonise like there is no tomorrow. At present, the world will have to cooperatively decarbonise at 5% per annum to slow this scenario down. Between 5-6 degrees will occur an extinction event like the Permian era. As we continue on at present rate, that should occur well before 2100. If you don’t believe me, visit YouTube’s National Geographic 1-6 Degrees Global Warming. It’s in three parts.

  • cole3244

    jane & joe citizen get it, the supposed officials don’t.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    James Inhofe is so bloody stupid he probably believes he will be perfectly fine from a flood because his middle name is Mountain.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    You just drank one of those gigantor sugar, caffeine drinks , huh?

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    Jim Inhofe is an example of the theory that sentient life life is devolving back to single cell consciousness.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    I take dog. All the ones I have known and loved are simply my kind of people. :-)

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    Me too. In California corrupt county boards allow housing to be built on hillsides prone to liquefaction and wildfires. It goes on year after year without end. The end result: The deaths of responders and civilians.

  • Whitewitch

    Perhaps you can come back as a nice animal that is celebrating the end of humans and their rude intrusions in the world. That is what I will hope for you and for me! I would like to be a bird!!!

  • cole3244

    mourning them is not enough, for me anyway.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    And methane—-God’s gift of free fuel.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    Or: Climate unpleasantness.”

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    Maybe you’ll change your mind when flushed out of that drank under-bridge during ‘unseasonable’ wet weather.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    More words: “Plutocratic Capitalism: Working exactly as intended.”

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    4. Never overestimate the intelligence of the American collective.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    “it’s pretty well quantified and any layman can see it” True! In California, we now have Summer temps as high as 107 degrees in the inland valleys. The macro farmers ( fruit and grapes) are buying land further up the Sierras. Orchards in our area are experiencing odd growth patterns—fruit forming at lower levels on the branches and later, near the tops. Practicality is already in action and capital is behaving as if climate disruption is here and certain.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    We’re about to go to stage 3 water rationing here, for the first time ever. They actually had to add an extension to the pipeline that goes into the nearby lake, because the water level was getting too low to continue to supply enough water. Then the corporate operated home owner’s association starts threatening to fine people for not having perfectly green Bermuda grass lawns.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    One word: ‘Feudalism.’

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    The entire modern world, from macro to micro is petroleum based. I would imagine by the next century a poisoned world will look back on us as a grand scale Easter Island extinction.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    Again, we run into the money issue. As Congress works hard to stagnate growth, with austerity as the only thing being discussed in Washington, the federal government starves states. Forcing the states to starve municipalities. Then when an oil company, or even a Wal-Mart, comes waving millions of dollars in their faces, or simply the prospect of a few hundred jobs for their region, they can’t help but take it. Even if it means sacrificing a piece of their community, and doing more harm than good over the long term. It’s a destructive downward spiral that we’ve been stuck in for close to thirty years.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    “are actually neoliberals who worship at the feet of corporatist Barack Obama.” Bingo!!! Exactly so—- comfortable bourgeois, who will always value money over liberty, who like Obama, talk a liberal line and do just the opposite.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    From what I can tell, they’re perfectly fine with fascism — particularly the ‘wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross’ type — as long as they’re the ones in charge.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    “hippie-punching will never go out of style.” I hope not, this hippie fights back.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    I couldn’t agree more. Next to Godwin’s Law, there can be no more absurdest meme than ‘The Lesser Evil.’

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    Exactly so. It will be interesting to observe how Republican sheep will accept the new fascism when they wake up—-if they ever do.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    I tell ya one thing WW, if i wake up after dying and find out that reincarnation is true, I’ll be so pissed.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    “first responders get no respect” Maybe that’s true in your area, but in California they are our heroes. They dedicate their professional lives saving us from fires, earthquakes, and worse. We appreciate them and mourn them along with their families when the die in the line of duty.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    One aspect of climate change that has yet to be addressed is the mass migrations that will occur when living in ‘damaged’ areas become untenable. My guess is that it will only be a matter of years. Without the slightest sense of histrionics I say dystopia is beginning to unfold.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Thanks. And yeah… and apparently hippie-punching will never go out of style.

  • Christian Trejbal

    If climate policy won’t change, what about development rules. This one we could make serious runs at locally. Progressive communities might convince local governments not to allow homes and other structures to go up in the urban-wilderness interface.

  • Kim_Kaufman

    I urge everyone to see Gasland 2. As Naja says, money trumps lives every time. And the Gas & Oil industry has plenty of it.

  • http://blogvader.tumblr.com/ Blogvader

    *slow clap*

    That’s what incenses me about folks who blame third-party voters when an election doesn’t go toward the liberal side.

    The Democrats simply do not behave like Democrats anymore.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    Actually, it’s a bit of a myth that we don’t show up to vote, and a lie that we didn’t turn out in sufficient numbers to turn back the 2010 mid-terms.

    What’s been happening is the Dems have embraced center-right neo-liberal/conservative policies, turning off the folks in the middle who don’t feel strongly about much of anything, but who would show up to vote if they thought their votes meant something. Every time there’s an important issue, one where the polling numbers are clear — public option health insurance, no cuts to Social Security, ending wars, prosecuting banksters, turning back the national security spying state — the Dems fail to deliver.

    And meanwhile, the GOPers have been gerrymandering and election-rigging like mad. If states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas were districted according to actual voter registration numbers, Congress — and the state governments in all three of those states — would be solidly Dem controlled.

    The result? Progressive left votes end up not being enough to sway elections, especially in heavily partisan-rigged districts, radical rightists turn out all their people because they deliver the red meat, and the folks in the middle become increasingly apathetic.

    The electoral deck is increasingly stacked towards far-right policies.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    Sorry Chris, but money trumps American lives every time. As long as there’s money to be made from destroying the environment, and as long as it costs money to reverse the damage, we’re screwed. We can’t even get Congress to pass a farm bill. We can’t get crumbling roads and bridges fixed. American lives are just the cost of the oil companies doing business, and like everything, the cost is only going to go up.

  • Bill_Perdue

    It’s not cooler and wetter in the SW and hasn’t been for well over a decade. We’ve had a month long run of record breaking heat.

    In other parts of the country flooding and it’s attendant deaths and damage. super-storms and lethal tornado swarms clear proof of global warming.

    The facts say that apologists for polluters are ridiculous.

  • Bill_Perdue

    The weather is killing thousands every year and soon it will be tens of thousands. Those responsible include the rich, the Democrat and the Republicans.

  • ComradeRutherford

    But a tiny minority of people say that climate change MUST be false because the scientists that study climate change get paid for their work. Therefore all of science MUST be a lie!!! Who are you going to believe, climate change deniers or your own lying eyes???

  • eggroll_jr

    I’m voting with number 2 here (Liz). Incumbent energy producers and other industries have little interest in changing the rules. Trying to break up these clusters that profit from externalizing all the costs of pollution and other damage is very difficult. Take the fight of coal magnate Nathan Tinkler with Aussie PM Julia Gillard. His business was feeding China’s coal-burning, and Gillard decided that it should be taxed accordingly. In 2012, he evaded something like $87 million in capital gains by moving to Singapore while swearing revenge. She’s gone now.

  • dula

    It turns out the problem is that a significant percentage of those “Liberals” you thought could change the world if they would all vote, are actually neoliberals who worship at the feet of corporatist Barack Obama. The only hope we had to salvage the nation was for the Democratic electorate to demand opposition to the Oligarchy. It’s far beyond being resigned to the lesser-of-two-evils consciousness…they actually fawn and spin for this man because they love him. They make Bachmann eyes at him. Game over.

  • TheOriginalLiz

    More likely, corporations and individuals who are profiting nicely from the status quo have no desire to upset that apple cart.

    The rich assume, perhaps rightly, that their wealth will allow them access to remaining resources while everyone else goes without. Curiously, the gun nuts seem to be operating under the same assumption with regard to their weaponry.

  • cole3244

    first responders get no respect and this incident needs an independent investigation, not a blue ribbon committee that will do nothing more than sweep blame under the rug similar to internal affairs and the police dept fiascoes.

  • Whitewitch

    The sooner we eradicate ourselves from this planet the better for all the other creatures we torment by being here.

  • perljammer

    If you’re referring to the cause of the fire, it is believed to have been lightening.

    If you’re referring to the cause of the accident that resulted in the deaths of the firefighters, it’s called a burnover, which as far as I can tell is the most common cause of death in fighting wildfires (there are also a lot of heart attacks, but of course you don’t see large group of firefighters simultaneously having heart attacks). The worst case of burnover I can find was in 1910, in a wildfire near Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in which 78 firefighters lost their lives. 25 firefighters were killed in a burnover while fighting a fire in Griffith Park (Los Angeles) in 1933. http://www.nifc.gov/safety/safety_documents/Fatalities-Type-of-Accident.pdf

    If you’re looking for a person or group of persons to scapegoat for this particular incident, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. Fighting wildfires is an extremely dangerous occupation, and unfortunately this sort of tragedy occurs fairly frequently.

  • TonyT

    Seems to me there should be an investigation as to way this happened and who is responsible.

  • goulo

    > I have no idea why someone would be a denier of climate disruption at
    this point; it’s pretty well quantified and any layman can see it,
    especially at higher latitudes.

    I guess that’s merely a rhetorical comment, but I guess it’s worth noting some major reasons for denialism:

    1. Lots of money and energy goes to convince people that global warming is “just a theory” and nothing to worry about, and even that it’s a vast conspiracy of scientists and the government to trick us. It’s as silly and cynical as disinformation about evolution being “just a theory”, but they both clearly work on a lot of people…

    2. Most people have bad memories and don’t notice gradual change like your old Greenland memories. Individual weather patterns fluctuate widely enough that it’s not so easy to remark long term trends.

    3. Simple knee-jerk polarized partisan politics against anything portrayed as “liberal/progressive” or which would supposedly cost businesses money or cause any kind of environmental regulations etc…

  • Jonas Grumby

    No it won’t. Children are slaughtered in an elementary school and we can’t pass background checks.

    Either all Liberals actually register and show up and vote, or it’s done. It’s all over. And it is a slow, ugly death.

  • caphillprof

    There is nothing–nothing–that will “spur us to action” regarding climate change. It will never happen.

  • S1AMER

    I recall a statement a few years back from James Inhofe (who would now be chairing the Senate environment committee had the GOP taken over the Senate last year) that we didn’t need to worry about such “climate change” nonsense as rising sea levels because God had promised Noah after the Flood that he wouldn’t do another big deluge.

    So when you write that, maybe, the sacrifice of 19 firefighters might propel some action on climate change, the old song came to mind: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign / No more water, the fire next time.”

    No, nothing will happen on climate change, no matter how many poor souls die, unless and until something big and awful enough happens to convince even the most idiotic literalist that something should be done. And I can’t even being to imagine how awful that will be.

  • eggroll_jr

    I do prefer that we speak of “climate disruption” rather than climate change, which is occurring all the time. Essentially, we are terraforming, and not in the good way. You can see this quite readily in some shots from space that look through the earth’s atmosphere now brown with coal smoke. Indeed, anybody who flew transatlantic daytime flights over Greenland and Iceland can see both the loss of ice and the brown hazing of the air. I have no idea why someone would be a denier of this disruption, it’s pretty well qualified and you can see it, especially at higher latitudes. Many countries, like e.g. Finland, have not climate debate, they have a debate on ways to best adapt to climate disruption.

  • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

    “Climate change” is the right-wing-think-tank PC term for “global warming”.

  • TheOriginalLiz

    Trolls are out early this morning.

  • pogden297

    It is utterly ridiculous trying to link a particular forest fire to global warming. I love though how the alarmists claim that particular event support their cause. Last summer, it was hot and dry in the Midwest. This summer it’s much cooler and wet. Undoubtedly in the alarmists’ book both are evidence of global warming. (Sorry, I refuse to call it “climate change” since the climate is always changing.)

  • Dave of the Jungle

    Pay no attention to Climate Science predictions of exactly the kind of erratic extreme weather phenomena we are observing. Remember, this whole notion that heat melts ice is just a theory.

  • mememine

    How dare you fear monger the climate blame exaggeration on the graves of these poor firefighters!!!

    Let us pray:

    ALGORE is my shepherd; I shall not think.

    He maketh me lie down in Greenzi pastures:

    He leadeth me beside the still-freezing waters.

    He selleth my soul for CO2:

    He leadeth me in the paths of self-righteousness for his own sake.

    Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of reason,

    I will fear no logic: for thou art with me and thinking for me;

    Thy Gore’s family oil fortune and thy 10,000 square Gorey foot mansion, they comfort me.

    Thou preparest a movie in the presence of contradictory evidence:

    Thou anointest mine head with nonsense; my fear runneth over.

    Surely blind faith and hysteria shall follow me all the days of my life:

    and I will dwell in the house of ALGORE forever.

    Ug ug. Cave man see strange thing in sky. Cave man put out fire and make Human sacrifice cave’s man’s wasteful lifestyle to please angry weather gods. Ug ug.
    We have come a long way? Now the left is holding their CO2 guns to our children’s heads and bullying us into voting for them but the big green liberal fear machine now just gives votes to a President Romney. Nice job girls.
    It’s over……………………….
    -Occupywallstreet does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded carbon trading stock markets run by corporations.
    -Socialist Canada killed Kyoto with a newly elected climate change denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists warning us of unstoppable warming (death).
    -Julian Assange is of course a climate change denier.
    -Obama has not mentioned the crisis in the last two State of the Unions addresses.

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