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Q&A: Understanding the impact climate change has on the fire service, communities they serve
Deputy Chief Rich Elliot details the IAFC’s Wildland Fire Policy Committee efforts to connect resources in preventing and mitigating wildland risk reduction
Rich Elliott notes that although he is not the meeting or committee type, he took an interest in the IAFC’s Wildland Fire Policy Committee after moving to the dry side of Washington state. After 10 years in an urban setting on the greener side of the state, Elliott now serves as deputy chief for Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue in Ellensburg, Washington, an area directly impacted by wildland issues.
“I didn’t see these wildland fire issues until I came over here and realized the complexity and the scope, and how important it is to prevent, mitigate and respond effectively to them,” Elliott said. “I also had a different perspective because at the time I joined, I was also the mayor of our city. So I could bring that elected official perspective to that and try to make sense to people who don’t understand the wildland problem.”
The Wildland Fire Policy Committee aims to tie the local resources that the IAFC represents into the broader wildland fire response and mitigation and prevention efforts. Elliott is also active in the State Mobilization process, IFSAC certification and regional ICS training.
FireRescue1 spoke with Elliott about impact of climate change and the changing wildfire season on the fire service.
FireRescue1: How does climate change impact the fire service and your work with the IAFC’s Wildland Fire Policy Committee?
Deputy Chief Rich Elliott: I think that everybody’s trendline, everybody’s studies, they see that we are seeing variation. I would say that variation means for the most part a difference in what would traditionally be the fire season in different regions of the country. The reality is that we really work across the nation on fires around the year because there isn’t really a time that you’re not either preparing, actively fighting or immediately post-fire.
What we are finding is that the traditional six- or eight-week season in any particular area that may have the highest risk, that’s now spread out over 12 weeks or 6 months. The resource network that exists in our country with the federal resources, the contracted resources and the state resources – a lot of those employees are seasonal or they are moving to even other parts of the world to handle Australia’s wildfire problem, for example.
So when you increase those seasons and increase the overlap between those seasons, it stresses the resources even further because we are used to sort of moving them around and kind of sharing them. Now we are doubling and tripling the demand for premium resources (e.g., the management teams or large air tankers); there are just not enough of them.
From our perspective, climate change is stressing the ecosystem. There are probably some areas that are getting the same amount of precipitation or their temperature really hasn’t varied. But instead of getting that precipitation in the form of snow, they are getting it in the form of rain.
This is our problem in Washington state. We are used to having that stockpile of water that keeps everything healthy through the balance of the fire season, but if it comes in the form of rain in the spring rather than in snow during the winter, your cumulative precipitation hasn’t changed. You don’t see that on the graph, but your snowpack is gone earlier.
What we find is, we deal with each week year-to-year and season-to-season. Maybe we look at the five- or 10-year trends, but the reality is that ecosystems don’t adjust to changes in weather that quickly. It takes decades or maybe even hundreds of years for a new type of forest to replace the old type of forest.
The other piece to that is we are seeing even on the west side of Washington – I’m using our state as an example – even though it’s still really green and there are lots of evergreen trees and it still rains a lot, you change the RH by a few percentage points, you change the weather pattern only slightly, and we are already seeing very significant wildfires on the west side by May.
That’s just a sign that the ecosystem is stressed. On top of that, over the last 100-plus years, but certainly over the past few decades, we have allowed a lot of building and infrastructure that are susceptible to damage by wildfires to be built into these areas. So all of these factors combined are creating these large catastrophic uncontrolled fires that are doing damage at an unprecedented level.
When we put people or stuff in the path of a fire, it is mostly in our interest to try to go change the direction of that fire or limit its damage, and that’s where you see the stress on the resources.
Large fires have happened throughout history and if they happen in the right areas at the right time and move slowly – low intensity fire – then they are mostly healthy fires for the forest. When you have these large fires occurring in the middle of housing developments and expensive infrastructure or if they occur at a time where the fuels are in such a condition that they burn to the point of sterilization, you lose that entire ecosystem for a while until decades later something replaces it – and hopefully it’s something that’s appropriate and healthy. But we are seeing those kinds of fires where you are not just seeing underbrush burned, you are seeing everything consumed to the point where nothing will grow there for a few years.
To what degree is this impact on ecosystems and the fire season accepted in the fire service?
I work with National Association of State Foresters, which represents state fire agencies. I think that there are politics in all levels of government and there are key terms that people don’t want to admit, and we don’t even have to talk about why it’s happening, but I think that over the last four, five, six years, we are seeing an acknowledgement that the fire seasons are intensifying, they are extending and that they are beginning to affect agencies that always thought of themselves as sort of on the periphery or even not directly involved.
We are trying to educate all of our member agencies that even if you don’t have a traditional wildland problem, if you have a big massive green belt in your city, then you have a wildland in your city. Many cities are built around rivers, and they have these big green belts and parks. But if you burn up 200 acres of your park system in the middle of your city, first of all, it’s dangerous, and you are going to do a lot of damage and it takes a long time to repair.
I think that the short answer to your question is that the majority of people get it. They may not understand all of the things that they can do to make it better or more effectively respond, mitigate risk, and in some cases prevent damage to their community. I don't think that we’re there yet, but I think the vast majority understand that there is an issue and that it’s going to get worse.
What can fire chiefs and departments do to mitigate the risks of wildfire?
The IAFC Wildland Fire Policy Committee put together the WUI Chief’s Guide, which is essentially an assessment tool for agencies to go in there and look at what their potential risks are. We offer mentorship and, in some cases, even on-site assistance, but our goal is to have fire departments engage with the stakeholder agencies in their communities.
Have those conversations with your parks departments, with your state parks, with your national parks, if you’re adjacent to a national park. Have those conversations and build those relationships really early
Get your agencies in a position to put your firefighters into a wildland-urban interface fire. Maybe the traditional firefighting and training needs to be supplemented, giving them some more appropriate PPE, teaching about structural triage. It’s a scaled resource list and it pushes agencies to critique themselves. Think “where should I be in this” and if you’ve reached a point where these nuisance fires are getting more and more intense, think, “I really need to have my people trained for this.”
Just having those conversations with your partners that you need to be interoperable with pays off even if it's not for wildland issues. I think that the structural fire agencies sometimes have been behind the ball in some areas, and I’m certainly not talking about every agency. But we have been, we don’t think of public works, the school district, the hospital ... all of the other parts, the non-governmental agencies in our community, the state fire agency. We only think of them as a resource to use when it floods or when there is a wildland incident. We fail to realize if we pile these resources together, you can use them in every application and your organization will be a lot safer. We wait for a public health emergency or a new threat to try to build a structure around it. We need to do that ahead of time. The wildland model – with wildland problems getting worse in the U.S. – it gives us the mechanism to solve some of our other problems.
How can departments scale up to deal with extreme weather events they haven’t experienced before?
There are a lot of really proactive agencies that are forecasting out there and are ahead of the curve. Unfortunately, most of us, we sort of wait until something happens and then go seek the equipment and the training when we have already incurred the risk or potentially the damage in the community. I think stepping back and performing really effective forecasting and risk management is a critical skill set – effectively looking at your data and where your trendlines are going.
We need to adapt to what’s coming on the horizon and what the community needs. That’s easier said than done, including getting equipment. Obviously, there are grant programs, but you know the majority of funding is still going to come from the local community. And getting people to invest in something that potentially hasn’t happened yet; that’s hard. Nobody wants to invest in something that’s insurance. It’s like you are gambling that you are going to have a bad outcome, that’s the only way you win with insurance.
Take wildland – and the reason I’m using the wildland problem is because we have everyone’s attention right now – the efforts that we are doing right now (and they’re not brand new), we can apply to every single sort of risk in our community.
If you create this network of agencies, when public health is overwhelmed, maybe the fire department steps in in a way that we didn’t use to. On the backside, maybe when the fire department is overwhelmed, public health can step into some of those roles that we typically have had to draw from the fire department. And if you create those relationships that are deeper then maybe just the fire department in the area or the fire and police getting along, if we go down deeper and everybody understands that they play a role in this, including your citizens, and tie that together really effectively, you get a really resilient community.
Then it doesn’t matter what happens. It matters because the duration and the severity of the event does matter, but for example, we never get tornadoes in Washington state, but we got tornadoes in the last few years. Nothing on the scale the Midwest sees, but a tornado hit west of Seattle – and that is ridiculous. Nobody has ever seen that before, but if you have a resilient system and where the principles of incident management are in place and everybody knows who everybody is and what their capabilities are, you don't have to rebuild that every time you have an incident.
How can fire chiefs advocate for progress in the face of climate change?
Planning codes are not popular and there is sort of a momentum for property rights, and I get that. Development is not bad. But development done incorrectly creates long-term liability for the community at short-term benefit. And I think that’s the attitude that we need to take. Don’t look at a planned housing development on the side of a hill that you know burns every 10 years as a good thing unless they do it in a way that mitigates that risk. We have to be strong enough to stand in front of that. Sometimes, you are going to lose the argument, but we know what the science says and we know that preventing something from happening or building things into a development is a lot cheaper than trying to replace it or trying to build things into the community after it has already been built.
I think that unfortunately, the pressure to take a short-term economic investment outweighs that you are not looking at the long-term impacts. If something bad happens in the next 50 years, then the community is going to spend 10 times whatever savings that you allowed the developer to enjoy on the front end (who may not even be from your community, they may have moved on). That doesn’t make any sense.
That’s a conversation that I had with my commissioners trying to get the WUI code passed. Who do you represent – the voters that are going to live in this community for the next 50-100 years, or do you represent the developer that is from Seattle that will be here for six months? Who is your audience? The people that live here and the people that have to live with the result. Most insurance companies base rates on the area risk, not off of individual property risk, so if you live in a community or a city or a county that has fire risk or high fire loss, you are going to pay higher insurance whether you do it right or not because you are paying what your neighbors pay.
What are some of the preventative measures that can be taken in communities near the WUI?
First and foremost, it’s about access. We have plenty of developments that go in that have primarily one way in and one way out. If you look at the fatality risk, it’s about getting people out of the way of these fast-moving fires and getting firefighters in. You have to have multiple ways out that are separated by enough distance that it’s unlikely that they will both be affected by the incident.
Then there are very clearly vegetation management provisions, as well as construction considerations, in my mind very reasonable considerations in terms of exterior materials/design; we don’t have to look very far. There was resistance in my state to accept the CAL FIRE-certified exterior vents for houses. If CAL FIRE is certifying a vent and saying it does its job, why are we not letting developers use this? California has been living with this problem for decades. They are ahead of us. Let’s use their experience.
Also, this may be unpopular, but there are probably areas that just shouldn’t be built on. Just because you want to build a $10 million house on a south-facing aspect at the top of a draw with tons of switchbacks to get up there and you are willing to spend that money doesn’t mean that you should. Because regardless of what you say, when the incident happens, we are still responsible for protecting you. There is no way to exempt yourself from that protection.
And firefighters inherently take a higher level of risk when there is property in the way, and that risk is multiplied when we believe there are people in the way. I can manage that to some extent. I can make rational decisions through the incident management process, and I can communicate and I can tell people, “Hey, we are going to write this area off.” We wrote off a building a couple of days ago and didn’t think twice about it, to protect the next building.
But the reality is, you take that desire to protect property and more so to protect lives, for hundreds of thousands of firefighters across the U.S., and you add in that time factor of fire is approaching. You are going to have people take more risks than you should, and you are going to have more bad outcomes, that’s math. And there is no way around it on the back end. The way around it is to put things in the front-end process and not put as many firefighters into those situations, and therefore, we will have fewer bad outcomes.
What message do you want to send to the fire community about climate change?
Please step back and take an objective look at your community, and the community that is immediately adjacent to you. Even if the wildland interface area hasn’t been your immediate problem, I think most agencies – if they look at it – they are going to find that they play some role in this. Most agencies are trending toward a higher level of risk and they need to start investing in this. Because that is the trendline for most agencies, doesn’t mean that is where everybody is going to end up, but it’s important for everyone who is a leader and everyone who is in the fire service. Every once in a while, we should be taking a step back and asking, “Is what we are doing actually fitting the community’s needs and risks?” My guess is we are behind the curve a little bit at least for most of the wildland risk.