When wildfire season arrived in New Mexico in mid-April — earlier than usual in our hot world — firefighters answered the call for help. They showed up to drive dry wind flames across the state, along the Rio Grande, into the mountains, and over neighborhoods and fields.
Some men and women who worked for local municipalities, small towns and counties. For example, the Albuquerque Fire Rescue’s Wildland Task Force fought 16 wildland and brush fires in the city and also helped with the Big Hole, Hermits Peak and Calf Valley fires, sending 70 crew members. Agencies such as the New Mexico State Forestry and the US Fish and Wildlife Service also assist with fires.
But most people work as federal wildfirefighters when New Mexico goes up in flames. As warming intensifies in the already dry Southwest, the fire season in the western US has lengthened and fires have become larger.
“Over the past four decades, we’ve seen the burning of the annual field [in the western U.S.] an increase of more than 300%,” bioclimatologist Park Williams said in an interview last year. “Over 300% means there is three to four times as much burning today as it was in the 1970s or 1980s. was expected to happen.”
Williams explained that the amount of forest land burned has increased by more than 1,300% since the mid-1980s. And there has been an increase of 165% in the burning of non-forest land.
“that tendency [of larger fires] That was already happening about 10 years ago,” Williams said in 2021. “What we’ve seen over the years is really blowing people’s minds.”
This trend is also wreaking havoc with the federal workforce facing these disasters.
Former Wildland firefighter Kelly Martin spoke about California’s increasingly severe fire season last year, inspired by dry, overly dense forests, like that of New Mexico: “This should really paint us all what the year should look like.” is going to be there,” she said, “and we cannot operate under the same archaic system that we developed 50 years ago”
Martin, who served as a wildland firefighter for 35 years for the Forest Service and National Park Service, is now the head of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, a nonprofit. When he first started the job in the 1980s, federal firefighters would probably do 400 hours of overtime during the summer.
“Now we see people regularly working a thousand, 1,500. [hours], And I think I also heard that there are people who are working like overtime about 2,000 hours a year,” she said. “This constant immersion in emergency mode is really having a tremendous impact on people’s mental health and well-being – to say nothing of their physical well-being.”
Federal Wildland firefighter Marcus Cornwell said the workforce is in “crisis mode” if the prolonged fire season isn’t bad enough with more complex fires.
“We have fewer firefighters on the ground at the federal level because the pay and benefits are not enough,” he said during an interview in early September 2021, in which he, Martin and former Wildland firefighter Jonathan Golden described the toll as an ongoing fire. The weather takes people.
I would say that we are really approaching a train wreck, a serious issue where firefighters are exhausted, they are mentally and physically challenged.
, Marcus Cornwell, Federal Wildland Firefighter
In 2021, Congress approved wage increases for entry-level jobs to $15 an hour. until mid-FebruaryThat pay bump was still not met by many firefighters. A US Forest Service update That time around indicated that the agency was actually hoping to boost paychecks until the summer. The Forest Service also said it was trying to identify seasonal firefighters to convert to full-time.
Lack of benefits, health insurance in ‘temporary’ jobs
As things stand, those jobs are classified as temporary, even when fire season is nearly year-round. Nearly three-quarters of federal smokers and hotshots – named “hotshots” The crew in the 1940s Because they work in the hottest parts of the fire – are considered temporary workers.
That means the bulk of federal wildland firefighters lack benefits such as retirement and access to affordable, reliable health care. Many people stay in their cars, Cornwell said, when there are no crew quarters.
“As soon as the season is over, they basically have no ability to access mental health care benefits so much as any long-term physical issues,” Cornwell said. “You know, once they’re fired and if their fire family isn’t there to support them, they don’t benefit.”
Life is not easy for many people once the flames are extinguished. Re-integration into family life, non-fire life, especially as the fire cycle intensifies, can be challenging.
During fire season, people miss out on important events, birthdays, anniversaries – even the birth of their children.
“When this goes on, it becomes a real struggle, and sometimes, we are able to successfully bury or suppress those memories,” Golden said. “But it turns out in winter. People turn to alcohol or drugs. ”
We have lost partners and friends to commit suicide from all this. This is a real problem within the community that clearly, I think, hasn’t been talked about enough or addressed as well as it could be.
, Jonathan Golden, former Wildland firefighter
Cornwell said he was concerned about recruiting for the upcoming season: “Ten, 15 years ago, we would have 400 or 500 applicants for entry-level fire jobs on some of the staff we work with. Now, we’re lucky if We see 50. With those kinds of numbers, we’re headed for a train wreck where at one point there’s going to be a city in New Mexico that’s going to call for federal aid, federal aid. What else. ? There’s no one to show up.”
So far this year, firefighters have come forward. But we cannot look away from the crisis.
We know why the climate is changing. Humans pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and drilling and emissions continue at a rapid pace, despite recognizing the need to drastically reduce emissions and immediately confront the worst consequences of climate change.
And while we may not be able to pinpoint the exact day the switch is flipped — when we irrevocably move into a world we’re not prepared to handle — Friday, April 22, took a peek at provided what that world looked like.
Hundreds of New Mexicans lost their homes, with thousands being evacuated, with 20 serious fires in 16 counties driven by high temperatures, low humidity and high winds. These huge, hot fires also affect watersheds, forest ecosystems, and plant and animal species. In our warming world, some coniferous forests never recover, instead transitioning to scrubland or nurturing other types of trees, including invasive species. We see this happening in places like the Jemez Mountains, where the effects of the Las Conchas Fire of 2011 are huge and long-lasting, and where the Cerro Pellado fire is burning right now.
Those of us who were away from that day’s fire were also terrified. The day’s winds fanned the flames, and also caused dust storms, damage and deep concern.
But there is still time to make choices that can prevent further warming and changes. And there’s still time to take care of each other—including through the hardest of things.
Being a wildland firefighter is fulfilling, Cornwell said. “It’s a public service that I think many of us feel satisfied with at the end of the day.” But things may not continue the way they are now: “We need more money. We need better programs. We need more support.”
About this story:
“The Longest Season: An Our Land Wildfire Special” is available to watch online. You can also watch the full interview with Cornwell, Martin and Golden on the PBS Video app.
This story was originally published by Source New Mexico, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Source New Mexico maintains editorial independence. Contact editor Marissa DeMarco for questions: [email protected] Follow Source New Mexico on Facebook and Twitter,