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Jan Lee headshot

Studies: Number of Rural Firefighters Dropping, Megafires Increasing

Words by Jan Lee

This summer has been a doozy for fires in much of the Northwest. Here in the heart of North Idaho, an area not necessarily known for rampant forest fires, the threat is on everyone's minds. Last week the Parker Ridge fire came uncomfortably close to the patchwork of farms and homes that surround our house. Like so many fires that have dotted the U.S. and Canadian Northwest in recent months, it started as a small lightning strike far from a residential area and grew, nurtured by exceptionally dry conditions and almost unheard of triple-digit heat waves.

But get used to it. According to a study released last month, fires like the difficult-to-contain Parker Ridge, the Kamiah fire, which has claimed 50 homes in North Idaho, and the Rock Creek blaze that roared through part of central British Columbia will be more frequent.

Megafires on the rise

A group of researchers at the University of Idaho has published a study that shows the occurrence of mega-size fires is likely to balloon in coming years. The reason? You guessed it: climate change.

"Very large fires," or megafires, are fires like the inferno in Kamiah, which take mega-size resources to contain, drain state coffers and often, when compounded with other fires or complications, lead to federal assistance. Or they may be ones like the Rock Creek B.C. fire, which is believed to have been caused by a smoldering cigarette butt, and moved with such speed within hours that campers were forced to flee on foot. According to the researchers, the data they studied suggested that a sharp increase in dry climate conditions, like drought, heat waves and loss of snow pack in the winter set the stage for megafires.

With the increase in climate change, said University of Idaho Geography Professor John Abatzoglou, "the projections are almost unanimously an increased" likelihood for wildfires.

Fighting the megafire

For the rural communities, the megafire presents a sizable problem.  Volunteer firefighters are the front-line defense for most small towns and many cities in the U.S. To put that into numbers: two-thirds of the fire departments are volunteer, and 70 percent of the country's firefighters that turn out to fight a fire, handle a toxic spill or aid in the rescue of an injured person are unpaid or receive nominal stipends for their work.

Yet according the National Volunteer Fire Council, the number of volunteer firefighters has decreased by 12 percent since 1984. And, "[while] the number of volunteer firefighters are declining, the age of firefighters is increasing," notes the report. Compared to 1984 statistics, when 12 to 15 percent of the firefighters in small- to medium-sized communities (2,500 to 10,000 people) were age 50 or older, 20 to 31 percent of today's front-line community firefighters are 50 or older.

And there's a clear reason for that, says the NVFC and the United States Fire Administration: Not as many younger community members are signing up.

Department of Labor statistics for 2004 show that nearly half (45.6) of those who declined to reenlist as firefighters for their community stated it was because they did not have time to volunteer, either because of job responsibilities or other commitments. Another 9.3 percent stated family issues prevented them from volunteering.

It's often easy to look at the rural community as a town or a place outside of major cities, ambiguously separated from major population centers. But in most cases, they aren't. As the Hayman fire in eastern Colorado proved a few years back, small towns often make up the first defense for major cities, and the resources that bolster the smallest towns often ensure the safety of the largest.

To combat volunteer retention problems, the NVFC launched a couple of new initiatives in 2014. One is the Fire Corps. Administered as part of the Homeland Security Department's Citizen Corps, it serves to bolster enlistment numbers, particularly in regard to emergency medical volunteer staffing, which is often handled by rural firefighters. A Federal Emergency Management Administration grant will also help the NVFC figure ways to increase the interest of millennials in firefighting roles.

And fire departments in both the U.S. and Canada have realized that increasing enrollment numbers may mean starting younger. In towns in the interior of British Columbia, an area known for hot, dry conditions and challenging fires, young men and women  taught fire fighting skills. The classes and competitions have been sponsored in the past by rural First Nations communities. It not only offers an excellent means to capture the interest of potential new recruits, but provides disengaged teens a up-close glimpse at what firefighting involves.

The NVFC admits on its Junior FireFighter site that here in the States, junior training problems often face liability problems while negotiating state laws. In Massachusetts, for example, a cadet must be 18 to be able to ride on a fire truck.  The limitations offer added protection, but as the Connecticut Office of Legislative Reports points out, it results in a maze of restrictions when it comes to teaching young adults about a crucial volunteer skill that helps keep their community safe.

Federal firefighting assistance on the way

This week Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, faced with increasing demand for firefighting resources, declared a state of emergency. It is odd to observe this transition, when taken with the recognition that Otter's administration has been stalwart against accepting any federal monies from the Obama administration. Idaho has until recently, remained steadfast against improving its Medicaid allowances for the elderly and disabled, all of which garner support from the federal government.

Fortunately, that line against federal funding seems negotiable when it comes to fire suppression in a state known for its mild summers and great snowpack. The new funding will likely not soften his position on enforcing environmental regulations to combat climate change but it, and the troops due to arrive shortly to assist local firefighters, will offer a much-needed buttress against this year's fires spurred by our changing climate.

Image credits: First responders - USDA; Suppressant - BLM; Firefighters - USDA

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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