Wildfires: Are we ready for the future?

In the past 18 months we’ve witnessed some of the worst wildfire seasons in our history. With insight from relevant experts, Dr Eric Kennedy and Luke Smith – let’s delve into some of the key logistical challenges we’re facing in wildfire response.

With record breaking temperatures, less predictable rainfall and an increase in extreme weather events, it is not surprising that fire seasons are changing. We are seeing larger and more intense fires across the world. Countries not typically prone to campaign fires like New Zealand have had some of their largest fires ever within the last five years.

Australian forest post fire ©Luke Smith

Fire seasons are also starting earlier and finishing later, resulting in seasons overlapping in the northern and southern hemispheres. “The 2019/2020 fire season in South East Australia was one of the most severe and extensive on record, and lasted more than twice as long as a typical season” describes Smith.

There is a lot of research investigating ecological response to wildfire. However, we often forget about the logistical challenges involved in wildfire response. The key challenges seem to be universal; Kennedy and Smith provide their perspectives on the challenges and where we might start in addressing them.

Challenge: Direct Exchanges

Currently, countries including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the USA, and Canada exchange firefighting resources. With fire seasons changing and lengthening across the world, the sharing of personnel and the leasing of equipment is becoming more challenging.

Personnel

Personnel are exchanged both locally and internationally during campaign fires. “Exchanging resources between jurisdictions – whether within the country or internationally – can help to smooth the peaks and valleys of variable fire seasons,” explains Kennedy. “Just as importantly, though, it serves as a conduit for cross-pollination of lessons, promising practices, and organisational cultures to help advance fire management.”

As fire seasons lengthen, campaign fires across hemispheres are starting to overlap. This will likely create not only local, but international shortages in firefighting personnel.

Equipment

Equipment is also shared internationally. Australia relies on US and Canadian companies to lease air tankers (large water bombing planes), air cranes (helicopters) and their crew for the fire season. In Australia,  166 aircrafts were leased during the 2019/20 season, including  rapid exchanges of large air tankers moving from fires in California to fires in Australia within two weeks.

Air Crane ©Luke Smith

“Whilst there are some permanent firefighting aircraft in Australia,” points out Smith, “the bulk of these are not water bombing and there simply isn’t enough of these resources to support the entire country”.

Challenge: Workload

Seasonal Staff

For seasonal staff, typical fire seasons allow for other commitments during eight months of the year – how will availability change with longer fire seasons and earlier training requirements?

“In the Canadian context,” explains Kennedy, “a large number of seasonal firefighters are students who typically return to classes in September and are busy with exams into the spring. This can create challenges with lengthening fire seasons, particularly when accounting for the time spent in training and refresher courses at the beginning of the season. These problems aren’t exclusive to students either, with the mix of multiple seasonal careers creating conflict as climates change.”

 Permanent Staff

With more time spent on fire response, workloads are changing to accommodate this. For those in permanent fire roles, this can mean less time and resources spent on planning and training. Another key issue is the reduced time, resources and predictability for fuel reduction burning, a key tool in fire management globally. “In Australia,” says Smith, “many government workers have a primary role as well as a secondary fire role. Spending more time on fire response results in other varied work and responsibilities going on the back burner”

Firefighter ©Kimberley Macdonald

Where to start?

With the right resources, capacity can be built in equipment and personnel to continue fighting fires for longer and more intense seasons. Kennedy and Smith both share the thought that this will require proactive thinking and rigorous planning to overcome these challenges.

Smith talks about “the value of increased personnel exchanges to assist in staff development and training, and the opportunity to start working with more countries, especially those who are likely to face more intense fire in the coming years.”

Kennedy has similar views, “it is also critical to continue to challenge assumptions in fire management. Investing in mitigation, restoring more good fire to the land, working more collaboratively with traditional and local stakeholders – these kinds of efforts are critical to diversifying the fire management community and building resilience and capacity for managing the strains of climate change.”

In the past 18 months we’ve witnessed some of the worst wildfire seasons in our history. “This is a collective problem”, Smith summarises, “in which firefighting agencies and countries need to start thinking more strategically, and increase their skills, capacity and partnerships to ensure we are all able to adapt and deal with climate change and the associated disasters”.

What logistical challenges have arisen in your field due to climate change? How is it being managed? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.


Biographies

Eric Kennedy

Assistant Professor of Disaster and Emergency Management at York University (Toronto, Canada).

Kennedy is a wildfire researcher whose work focuses on the social, behavioural, and policy dimensions of wildland fire and fire management.

Luke Smith

Fire Ecologist at the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (Victoria, Australia).

Smith is an operational forest firefighter and fire ecologist, with over 10 years of experience in fire management and research.

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