Last summer, the fires creeping up from Salem, Oregon, and the base of the Cascades colored Portland’s skies a sickly red. While it’s extremely difficult for an urban metropolis to burn, the satellite images of smoke spreading out over the Pacific made it seem as though cataclysm wasn’t far off. In the fall, after what might have been the worst fire season ever recorded in the western United States, the smoke subsided, but the sense of unease remained.
In the summers of 2017 and 2018, I lived in Portland while waiting for the call to pack up and head to my fire crew’s dispatch in the Columbia River Gorge. I worked on a twenty-person handcrew, chainsawing snags in the pine stands of eastern Oregon and driving across barren straits of sage scrub in Montana’s wilderness. Once, atop granite cliffs in Idaho, we scouted for spot fires smoldering out between the juniper and cattle carcasses, tongues of dry lightning flickering above the hills.
During sixteen-hour shifts in the smoke, under the roar of helicopters, a new reality takes shape, divorced from the familiarities of a world not yet ablaze. After just a few days, your sense of smell is cut in half, and soon it almost completely disappears. During long truck rides and in thickets of poison oak, civilization faded. The people I worked with were the only constant in an ever-changing natural landscape. On the crew, we developed a fragile but potent solidarity.
We were one part of a privatized and fractured workforce mobilized each summer then abandoned in the winter. Across California and the Pacific Northwest, tens of thousands of workers battle fire without labor protections or benefits, for wages that fluctuate wildly, from just a couple dollars an hour for incarcerated workers to more than $20 an hour for the veteran U.S. Forest Service employee or private crew boss. Between private contractors, state agencies, and federal bureaus, there are vast discrepancies in training and efficacy.
As the United States slips closer to ecological collapse, the organization of America’s wildland labor force must be radically overhauled if there is to be any hope in combating our climate emergency. A massive job mobilization expanding the public workforce, reversing the trend of privatization, securing a living wage for tens of thousands of firefighters, and multiplying year-round positions that address the increasingly complex factors that lead to megafires is the best hope we have to confront the firestorm that threatens to engulf the West Coast.
In 2020, more than 58,250 wildfires burned some 10.3 million acres across the United States. California was hammered by the fires, as were Colorado, Arizona, and the Pacific Northwest. At a high-profile September meeting with President Donald Trump, California Governor Gavin Newsom blamed climate change for th...
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