The gigantic fires that have ravaged the west coast of the United States for more than a month are beginning to weigh heavily on the shoulders of exhausted firefighters, whose titanic task is made even more complicated by the coronavirus pandemic.
As of Monday, more than 19,000 firefighters were fighting 27 “major fires” in California. For one of them, Darrell Roberts, battalion commander with twenty years of experience, there is no doubt that climate change is at work.
“When resources are at their lowest and all the firefighters are literally deployed on the front lines, along with others from all over the United States and even other countries, we know we are in uncharted waters,” said to AFP Mr. Roberts, returning from a three-week mission in the heart of the burning forests.
“We have never seen such fires before”, assures this veteran.
The scale of the fires, which have already devastated more than 20,000 km2 and killed more than 30 people this season on the west coast, calls into question traditional fire-fighting techniques, taken to their limits, according to Mr. Roberts .
In addition, there are the health constraints linked to Covid-19.
“It puts a lot of pressure on the firefighters, because our job is to save lives, and now we also have to think about protecting ourselves,” he explains.
Rescue officials had to adapt the configuration of base camps to minimize the risk of contagion, and many firefighters even brought their own individual tents for safety.
“In the last seven days of fighting the fires, we were really camping,” says Darrell Roberts, who lives in Southern California with his wife and two children.
Fatigue and stress
“Imagine: you have just spent 24 to 36 hours fighting the flames, it's hot, with temperatures exceeding 38 ° C, and you find yourself in a tent to rest before returning there”, insists he.
With the proliferation of fires, which frequently break out in steep and inaccessible areas, emergency services often have to drive, or even walk, for several hours to reach them, then repeat the route in the opposite direction once their service is over.
Exhausted, they still have to devote part of their rest time to repair and clean their equipment.
The fatigue is also psychological, with the danger, the scenes of destruction and as a bonus the distance from the family. “On a fire this summer, we had a captain who was scheduled to talk over the phone with his wife and two young daughters about how to euthanize one of their dying pets,” Mr. Roberts recalls.
“For sick wives and children, birthdays, we can not always be present … We miss precious moments with our families, and that can not be made up”, loose the officer.
This stress translates into a higher than average rate of depression and suicide among American firefighters, who are statistically more likely to end their lives than to perish on a mission.
For Darrell Roberts, a member of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the historic scale of the ongoing forest fires, which are expected to continue until the end of the year, will unfortunately become the norm.
“Each year the temperatures are rising, we are breaking new records and it is getting drier and drier. This is what I know as a firefighter who has been in the field for twenty years, ”he says.
“Climate change has a direct impact. It's obvious to me. And we don't see the end of it, ”he concludes.