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“These Are Climate Fires”: Oregon Firefighter Ecologist Says Devastating Blazes Are a Wake-Up Call

Timothy Ingalsbee interviewed by Amy Goodman - Democracy Now!, September 14, 2020

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As California, Oregon and Washington face unprecedented fires, President Trump is refusing to link the devastation to the climate crisis. After ignoring the fires for a week, Trump is traveling to California today. Over the weekend, he blamed the fires on poor forest management.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But, you know, it is about forest management. Please remember the words, very simple: forest management. Please remember. It’s about forest management.

AMY GOODMAN: California Governor Newsom rejected Trump’s focus on forest management practices.

GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM: I’m a little bit exhausted that we have to continue to debate this issue. This is a climate damn emergency. … And I’m not going to suggest for a second that the forest management practices in the state of California over a century-plus have been ideal, but that’s one point, but it’s not the point.

AMY GOODMAN: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also pushed back on Trump’s characterization of the wildfires as a forest management issue. Speaking on CNN, Garcetti said the president was reluctant to help California, Oregon and Washington because they have Democratic governors.

MAYOR ERIC GARCETTI: This is climate change. And this is an administration that’s put its head in the sand. While we have Democratic and Republican mayors across the country stepping up to do their part, this is an administration, a president, who wants to withdraw from the Paris climate accords later this year — the only country in the world to do so. Talk to a firefighter if you think that climate change isn’t real. And it seems like this administration are the last vestiges of the Flat Earth Society of this generation. We need real action.

AMY GOODMAN: In Washington state, where firefighters are tackling 15 large fires, Governor Jay Inslee also emphasized the climate crisis is most responsible for the wildfires.

GOV. JAY INSLEE: These are not just wildfires. They are climate fires. And we cannot and we will not surrender our state and expose people to have their homes burned down and their lives lost because of climate fires.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in Oregon, six of the military helicopters operated by the state’s National Guard, that could have been used to help fight the wildfires, are not available because they were sent to Afghanistan earlier this year. This is Oregon Governor Kate Brown speaking Friday.

GOV. KATE BROWN: Well over a million acres of land has burned, which is over 1,500 square miles. Right now our air quality ranks the worst in the world due to these fires. … There is no question that the changing climate is exacerbating what we see on the ground. We had, as we mentioned earlier, unprecedented, a weather event with winds and temperatures. In addition, we added a ground that has had a 30-year drought. So, it made for extremely challenging circumstances and has certainly exacerbated the situation.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Eugene, Oregon, where we’re joined by Timothy Ingalsbee. He is a wildland fire ecologist, former wildland firefighter, n ow director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, known as FUSEE.

What happens to workers when wildfires and natural disasters hit?

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, December 8, 2017

Sadly, we are becoming  used to seeing headlines about the costs of fighting climate change-related wildfires, hurricanes, and floods – most recently, the record wildfire season of 2017.   These news reports usually discuss loss  in terms of the value of  insurance  claims – for example, “Northern Alberta Wildfire Costliest Insured Natural Disaster in Canadian History – Estimate of insured losses: $3.58 billion”   from the Insurance Bureau of Canada, or in terms of the budgets of emergency service agencies – for example, “Cost of fighting U.S. wildfires topped $2 billion in 2017” from Reuters (Sept. 14), or in terms of health and mental health effects – for example, “Economic analysis of health effects from forest fires”  in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research (2006).  “The Science behind B.C.’s Forest Fires” (December 5) post by West Coast Environmental Law discusses the links to climate change, and concludes that the record wildfires of 2017 foreshadow growing economic and  human costs in the future.

When employment effects of disasters are reported, it is usually by statistical agencies interested in working days lost or unemployment effects,  for example,  “Wildfires in northern Alberta: Impact on hours worked, May and June, 2016”  from Statistics Canada, or “Hurricane Katrina’s effects on industry employment and wages ” from the Bureau of Labor Statistics ( 2006) . While all these are important, Hurricane Katrina taught that there are also other aspects, including those of environmental and economic justice.

Climate Change Meets Mass Incarceration: California's Incarcerated Firefighters

By Ryan Harvey and Sammy Didonato - Truthout, December 27, 2017

The intersection of climate change and mass incarceration is not unique to California, but as the state experiences its deadliest and most destructive year on record for wildfires -- including the second-largest in the its history -- the state's incarcerated firefighter Conservation Camp program has come firmly under the microscope.

With fresh air, no walls and better treatment than prison, these "fire camps" have been commended as a model for rehabilitation. However, with wages at a fraction of minimum wage, they have been condemned as an exploitative labor practice.

Often missing from this debate are the voices of the firefighters themselves, whose perspectives offer an important nuance of criticism and possible solutions.

"What worries me when I hear too much discussion about fire camp as a form of slavery, is that they're focusing on perhaps the best part of the whole prison system," formerly incarcerated firefighter Matthew Hahn told Truthout. "The firefighters are in the public, that's why they are getting the focus. At the same time, they are living in perhaps the best conditions in the California prison system."

Selena Sanchez, an incarcerated firefighter until last year, describes an experience far better than prison but full of hard work, false promises and extremely low pay. "I'm not going to paint a pretty picture of it," she says. "They ran us like dogs."

Still, Sanchez says she would return to fire camp if she found herself back in prison.

The Conservation Camp program, joined at times by other local county prison so-called "Honor Camps," began in 1946 as a partnership between the California State Detentions Bureau -- now the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) -- and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (Cal Fire). It quickly grew to become a staple of fighting California's wildfires, and has long been destination number one for prisoners serving time in the state prison system.

A nuanced look at the dynamics of this program, and the small percentage of prisoners eligible for participation, reveals that even though fire camps offer alternatives to prisoners being behind bars for all of their incarceration, the model has its shortcomings and should not be seen as a panacea to mass incarceration.

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