'It was angry in the way it gobbled up the ground': Fighting fires on the front line of climate change

A firefighter works the scene.
A firefighter works the scene as flames push toward homes during the Creek Fire in the Cascadel Woods area of unincorporated Madera County, Calif., on Sept. 7.
Josh Edelson | AFP via Getty Images

It was a fire in Chadron, Nebraska, that first illustrated to Don Whittemore how climate change would impact his career as a firefighter.

That day was hotter and drier than his veteran incident commander had ever seen, and the fire was “angry in the way it gobbled up the ground,” Whittemore said. It forced him to take shelter in a house with large windows.

“It was pitch black out. The smoke had obliterated the July sun and embers blew past the window horizontally like one might view a winter blizzard,” Whittemore said. “And then all of a sudden that expanse of glass filled with an enormous fireball.”

It’s what firefighters now call an area ignition, where all of the carbon material and gasses in the area ignite at once.

“We were now starting to see a change where what happened in the past was no longer a reasonable predictor for what we might see in the future,” said Whittemore, whose fire career spans more than 40 years and includes work as a chief and incident commander.

The fire in Chadron was back in 2006. Now, the link between climate change and the increasing intensity and frequency of wildfires is apparent.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom put it plainly during a press conference in a still-smoldering forest last week. Since the beginning of the year, his state has seen more than 7,900 wildfires char more than 3.4 million acres, according to CalFire.

“We are in the midst of a climate emergency. We are experiencing weather conditions the likes of which we have never experienced in our lifetime,” he said. “We are experiencing what so many people predicted decades and decades ago, but all of that now is reality.”

A Climate Central analysis of U.S. Forest Service records show fires over 1,000 acres in the western U.S. have more than tripled since the 1970s. And that’s with the planet warming 1.5 degrees Celsius. What will fires look like at 2 or 3 degrees of warming?

“I couldn’t even venture to guess,” Whittemore said.

He said fires don’t respond to temperature changes linearly, but rather, they change exponentially. And the new climate reality has challenged computer models that help firefighters predict how the flames will spread.

It’s been challenging for Whittemore as a firefighter, but also as a dad. His daughter is also a firefighter.

“As somebody who’s been in fire as long as I have, I’d like to be able to give her wisdom to keep her safe,” he said. “And the trouble I run up against is what I know isn’t necessarily accurate for what she’ll encounter in the future.”

Whittemore spoke with MPR News chief meteorologist and Climate Cast host Paul Huttner. Hear their full conversation, including what Whittemore makes of the role forest management plays in the west’s fires, by using the audio player above.

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