California, Oregon, and Washington State are on fire at present. As are Idaho, Montana, and Nevada. This past week, the number of active wildfires rose to over a hundred. 1.1 million acres have been burned. Exhausted fire crews can no longer respond to all the blazes and for the first time in almost ten years the US Army is being sent in to help. 71 fire experts from Australia and New Zealand are on their way. Towns have been evacuated, houses destroyed, people have been killed. This appears to be the big one.
It probably isn’t a coincidence that much of the region is still in a multi-year drought that has certainly been exacerbated by climate change and that July was Earth’s hottest month since record-keeping began.
I have written about the connection between climate change and wildfire before, here and here and here. I could write the same article again, about how drought and heat work together to change fire behavior and about how human activity and natural variation work together to create increasing disaster. But why? Next year there will be more fires and I’ll have another opportunity to say exactly the same things.
A day or two ago I watched an interview on TV with the parents of a fallen firefighter. I have been unable to find a transcript, or even proper attribution of the broadcast anywhere online, but the father of the young man said something along the line of “They’re saying he was a hero. And he was a hero. We’re proud of him. But we were proud of him before. We wish he wasn’t a hero; we wish he were still here with us.”
That stuck with me.
There is a human cost to climate change, and that cost is on the individual level. When we talk about increased danger from forest fires, this is what that means–an increased chance of news like this. We’re not just talking about numbers–these people have names, histories, families.
Some sources have mentioned as many as 13 firefighters dead so far this year, a somewhat high but not extraordinary number, but several of them died during training or from other circumstances not directly related to the fire. At least five were actually killed in the line of duty, although I am not certain my information is complete–there may be more, and in any case the season is not over. When a firefighter dies, his or her companions sometimes say “she/he answered the last call.” A call being a call to duty, like a pager going off in the night, a fire. You can’t refuse to go.
Here are the names I found.
Dave Ruhl, of Rapid City, South Dakota, died on the Frog Fire in the Modic National Forest, in California. He died on Friday, July 30th , while scouting a fire zone by vehicle. His body was not found until the following morning and the specific cause of his death was not initially announced.
Ruhl, 38, was a veteran firefighter who normally worked as an engine captain for the Black Hills National Forest. He had been at Black Hills for 14 years. Earlier in life he had served with the US Coast Guard. He also used to work as a correctional officer in South Dakota. He was originally from Wisconsin. He had a wife and two children. Friends and coworkers describe him as a passionate and professional firefighter and a quiet, highly respected leader.
Michael Hallenbeck, of Shingle Springs, died Saturday, August 8th, on the Sierra Fire in El Dorado County, California, when a tree fell on him during initial attack.He is survived by his parents and his sister.
Hallenbeck, 21, was working on his first fire. He loved being a firefighter and his parents describe him as very excited about his new job. He was an avid sportsman and outdoorsman. He snowboarded, hiked, and played football, basketball, golf, and other sports. His parents are devastated, but very proud of him.
Tom Zbyszewski, Andrew Zajac, and Richard Wheeler died on August 19th in a wildfire near Twisp, Washington. While scouting a large fire that had already triggered widespread evacuation orders, their vehicle crashed and the fire overtook and burned them. Several other men who were with them survived but with severe injuries; one of the survivors was in critical condition at the time of the report.
Tom Zbyszewski, 20, was a physics major at Whitman College. This was his second summer as a firefighter. His parents worked for the Forest Service as well—his mother still does. His father is a retired firefighter and has said publicly that he wishes it were him, not his young son, who died that way.
Andrew Zajac, 26, wrestled and played football and the cello in high school before attending Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and then the University of South Dakota, where he earned a master’s degree in 2014. He was in his second year as a firefighter when he died. He leaves behind a spouse as well as friends and family who remember him as a hard worker, an athlete, and a man who loved the outdoors.
Richard Wheeler, 31, was a fourth-generation firefighter. He is from South Haven, Michigan, and graduated from Grand Valley State University.