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California’s Fight Against Wildfires is Actually Global

California is (Still) Burning

This week, firefighters in California were on high alert as yet another Red Flag Warning from high winds put much of the state in fire danger. More than 5,000 firefighters are battling 22 active wildfires in the Golden State.

The typical fire season in California runs from May to October, but nothing about 2020 has been “normal,” even when it comes to wildfire. This fire season has been the worst ever recorded. More than four million acres have burned so far, doubling the previous record of 1.8 million set in 2018.

Northern California’s August Complex fire earned particular infamy when it reached “gigafire” status – becoming California’s first-ever fire to reach one million acres. (Yet, it was only the second gigafire of the year – Australia recorded the first).

Imported Firefighters

Wildfire is a growing threat in the United States, where an average of 6.9 million acres has burned each year since 2000 (a figure more than double that of the 1990s). But it is a global challenge, too. The World Health Organization estimates that wildfires and volcanic eruptions affected 6.2 million people between 1998 and 2017. The frequency and intensity of wildfire in the grasslands and forests of Australia and the Amazon has become an especially high profile concern.

At the peak of this year’s fire season, California deployed more than 19,000 firefighters at one time, when a lightning storm ignited simultaneous fires across the state. Firefighters also traveled to California from 10 other U.S. states to assist with the blazes.

To help fight fires here at home, the U.S. has international agreements in place with Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand to obtain firefighters and aircraft from each other during periods of high wildfire activity. The U.S. Forest Service and other government agencies collaborate to improve the host country’s fire management capacity.

Australia and New Zealand have sent firefighters to the U.S. six times since 2000, most recently in 2018. At the height of this year’s fire season, California Governor Gavin Newsom called for help from Australia and Canada – but the request was ultimately withdrawn after conditions improved. However, a team of 10 Israeli firefighters still arrived in September to help fight the blazes – marking the first time Israel has sent wildfire assistance to California.

CA fire map

Global Gear

Firefighting services are not the only wildfire-related “imports”. Wildland fire fighters require rugged, specialized gear. That iconic yellow firefighting suit is made of Nomex, a flame-resistant meta-aramid material that was developed by DuPont in the 1960s. The largest DuPont manufacturing facility in the world is located in Richmond, Virginia, where Nomex is made. The chemical maker has also expanded its production of the flame-resistant fiber in Spain and Japan.

The rugged Stihl MS461 is a favorite chainsaw among firefighters. The German company built the first two-person electric chainsaw back in 1926 and it has since become ubiquitous. Stihl’s USA production is centered in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and sold through a network of 9,000 dealers and exported to 80 countries.

That bright red fire retardant dropped out of planes to create a fire break is called Phos-Chek, produced by Perimeter Solutions. The name comes from its active ingredient, ammonium phosphate, which creates a coating on plants that deprives the fire of fuel. While Perimeter Solutions’ global headquarters is in St. Louis, Phos-Chek is manufactured in seven other U.S. locations (most California flame retardant is made in Rancho Cucamunga, for example), as well as France, Spain, and Australia.

COVID Brings New Challenges in 2020

The pandemic changed the way that California prepared for fire season and has made fighting fires more complicated. Shutdowns meant that volunteers who usually help clear the undergrowth that fuels fires each spring stayed home.

Wildfire smoke can make people more prone to lung infections, including COVID-19. Although N-95 masks can provide protection from wildfire smoke, PPE has been in short supply given the strain that the pandemic has put on the global medical supply chain.

The number of firefighters has been reduced as some have become infected by the coronavirus, forcing mandatory quarantines. Questions remain about the best way to house firefighters, who usually stay in crowded base camps while out in the field. California also relies on prison inmates to help fight fires each year, but that roster was cut in half in 2020 after COVID-19 spread through prisons.

Fewer firefighters juggling more fires simultaneously means that 2020 will likely be one of the most expensive wildfire seasons in history. Some are comparing it to the “Big Blowup of 1910,” when a series of fires burned millions of acres across Idaho, Montana and Washington.

Orange haze over San Francisco Bay on September 9 2020 from record wildfires in Californa, ash and smoke during daytime
An orange haze over San Francisco

Short and Long Term Costs

Like any natural disaster, wildfires can result in major supply chain disruptions – and in some ways they are more difficult to prepare for than other destructive events like hurricanes. As we have seen this year in California, wildfires can last for weeks or months and often are started with little warning, whether from lightning strike or arson.

While wildfires are most feared for the tragic – and expensive – destruction they leave immediately in their wake, the economic impacts are far-reaching and long-lasting. For example, the 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California destroyed the entire town of Paradise, causing $8.5 billion in initial damages. It was the costliest natural disaster in the world up to that point and led to the bankruptcy of a major utility provider that was held responsible for starting the fire. But the impact of the blaze was ultimately felt far beyond Butte County.

Wildfire often impacts commerce, when deliveries far from the flames are delayed due to smoke, wind and road closures. For example, back in September 2018, an Amazon warehouse in Sacramento was forced to temporarily shut down because of the health hazard caused by smoke from the Camp Fire, which was 80 miles away. Flights were also delayed out of San Francisco International airport at that time.

Companies are now factoring in peak fire season when considering shipments to and from the west coast, seeking to diversify their sourcing and storage capabilities.

Importing New Ideas

Wildfire has long been a fact of life in the west, but the growing cost and threat to communities where hundreds of thousands of Californians call home – not to mention the other destructive fires impacting other western U.S. states this year – has led to a renewed push for solutions.

The Bay Area recorded 30 consecutive “Spare the Air” days this summer due to unhealthy air quality from the August Complex fire. Meanwhile, California’s famous wine industry faces an uncertain future due to huge fires that swept through Napa Valley.

Countries around the world face a similar threat to their citizens and economies. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations created Fire Management Voluntary Guidelines to help countries develop an integrated approach to fire management. But is greater international collaboration possible? Can we borrow ideas from the way other fire-prone places like Australia – or even countries with *too few* fires like Finland – navigate their fire seasons?

Ultimately, all fires are local. But perhaps more lessons can still be learned from the global effort to fight wildfire.