Wildfires are becoming more intense every year in the United States and climate change is a big catalyst. A Columbia University study found that, since the 1980s, climate change has doubled the number of acres destroyed by wildfires in the U.S. alone. Wildfires have spread across 16,000 additional square miles than they should have, an area larger than the combined square miles covered by Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Warmer weather exacerbates fires by causing land to dry out. Because warmer air can hold more moisture, it absorbs moisture from soil, ground vegetation, trees and other plants; these drier plants then become fuel for wildfires to gobble up. Another factor that has increased wildfire destruction is firefighting itself. By immediately putting out wildfires instead of allowing fire to consume dried-out vegetation and letting it die off naturally, firefighting leaves behind more fuel for wildfires that ends up reigniting later.
Fire science administration is a career that is increasingly in demand as climate change creates more complex scenarios for fighting wildfires. The media is full of images of courageous firefighters battling blazes on the front lines, but behind the scenes, fire administrators are also an indispensable part of the team.
What Fire Administrators Do
Fire administrators are the unsung heroes of the battle to contain a wildfire. Firefighters tackle the strategy involved in putting out the fire, but fire administrators deal with many aspects of emergency management, from coordinating firefighter operations and managing resident evacuations to dealing with essential back office requirements, like making sure firefighters get paid and dealing with workers’ compensation claims.
Yolie Thomas works as assistant director of fire management for the U.S. Forest Service. She says that when she receives an alert of a possible extended wildfire, she notifies preset fire teams, who are organized in a two-week rotation, to prepare them for activation. She talks to local emergency administrators to learn everything she can about the nature of the fire and to identify any special requirements they may have, including needs related to equipment or the need to hire priority trainees.
After coordinating with local officials, Thomas launches the administrative side of the operation. She makes sure the finance section chief has enough equipment, personnel and workspace. She works with other people to acquire needed contractors and equipment. “It’s a series of calls that continues until folks have gotten what they need and we have all the personnel rolling out to that fire that are needed,” Thomas explained in a summer 2016 Fireline Magazine interview.
It’s not glamorous, but it’s critical to keep paperwork moving. Many wildfires cross a wide range of jurisdictions, so local, state and federal personnel have to coordinate with one another. They have to share personnel and expenditure information to make sure they have resources they need without spending money they don’t have. If a vendor doesn’t get paid in the chaos, firefighters may not get the supplies they need. Failure to process a contract firefighter’s paperwork could keep someone who put their life on the line from receiving compensation and benefits.
Before Emergencies Happen
In addition to jumping into action when a fire is raging out of control, a fire administrator may be involved in efforts to keep wildfires from happening in the first place. They may administer controlled burn programs, in which certain areas of a forest are deliberately ignited to eliminate excessive plant material and to kill off invasive species that destroy plants and leave desiccated, flammable materials behind. These burns have to be conducted under carefully controlled conditions and with a respect for local air quality, but they are one of the most effective ways to prevent wildfires from happening.
Fire administrators may also be involved in efforts to prevent fires by improving forest quality. Naturally occurring forests originally had between 15 and 50 trees per acre; now, there are 300 to 700 trees per acre. Thinning trees to their pre-human quantities ensures that the remaining trees are healthy. Even when fire teams can’t thin entire forests, they can thin certain areas to create buffer zones that keep wildfires in check.
One of the biggest challenges fire administrators have to tackle is finding enough funding for these types of fire prevention projects. Local, state and federal governments open their coffers to tackle fires in action, but they are often resistant to investing in the steps that can prevent wildfires from getting out of control. With the quantity and severity of wildfires on the rise, and with warmer temperatures extending wildfire season year after year, fire administrators face a critical challenge when it comes to taking strong preventive measures and having enough money left over to fight fires when they happen.
A Critical Role
Without fire administrators, teams of firefighters on the ground wouldn’t have the tools they need to fight wildfires. A fire administrator’s role is part manager, part financier, part scientist — and it’s a role that’s becoming more critical every day.