The perilous new normal on wildfire lines

A Cal Fire engineer works near Lower Lake last week as a wildfire rages, fueled by bone-dry vegetation, triple-digit temperatures and gusting winds.
A Cal Fire engineer works near Lower Lake last week as a wildfire rages, fueled by bone-dry vegetation, triple-digit temperatures and gusting winds. The Associated Press

Firefighting is a heroic job. This is especially true this summer: California has been ablaze for months, from San Bernardino County to the Oregon state line.

More than 4,000 wildfires have ravaged the state this year, 53 percent more than the five-year average. Last week, a volunteer engine captain from South Dakota died after being trapped in a wind-whipped wall of flames in the Modoc National Forest.

David Ruhl, 38, left a wife and two children. Raised in the Midwest, he was described by colleagues as humble, dedicated and easygoing. A U.S. Coast Guard veteran, he had joined the U.S. Forest Service in 2001 and was supervising a fire suppression crew in the Black Hills National Forest when he volunteered for the lethal marathon that firefighting has become in the West in this era of drought and global warming.

Imagine: Leaving your home to face an inferno in a wilderness 1,500 miles from your loved ones. That’s real sacrifice, and far closer to the norm for the state, local and federal firefighting community than the murder trial of the disgraced Cal Fire battalion chief whose midlife affair ended in his girlfriend’s death and his sentence last week to 16 years to life behind bars.

Since spring, that all-too-human tale has dominated the news in this region, but the much larger story is the 9,000-plus firefighters who, like Ruhl, are risking their lives every day against a super-human foe that has only grown more powerful as the planet grows warmer. The last 17 years have included 10 of the hottest on record, according to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Last year tops the list, and this year is on track to be even hotter.

Across the West, that has added up to a catastrophic fire season. The Frog fire that killed Ruhl was one of 23 roaring at the time across California.

Last year, more than 63,000 wildfires scorched 3.6 million acres across the United States, and the federal firefighting costs alone were more than $1.5 billion. In California, state funds for firefighting last year were used up by September, forcing Gov. Jerry Brown to tap state natural disaster reserves and federal money – and veto $100 million in higher education funding.

This year, those costs are expected to run even higher. The Obama administration wants to create disaster funds for wildfire fighting that the Interior and Agriculture departments, which oversee federal firefighters, could automatically draw on when an extreme fire taps out their budgets. Right now, when firefighting in national forests costs more than expected, federal agencies pay from set-asides for wildfire prevention – a strategy that has the perverse effect of diminishing the resources needed to head off the problem.

Republican leaders in Congress, many of whom have parched public land in their districts, should see this crisis for the new normal that it is, and rise to the occasion. The firefighters on the line are flesh and blood facing a colossus, and deserve no less.