The basic techniques for fighting wildfires have changed little in decades. Aircraft dropping water and chemicals from the sky, and on the ground bulldozers, adzes, chain saws and the boots of thousands of firefighters racing to hold back the flames.
But the fires themselves are changing, partly as a consequence of climate change, burning hotter and more rapidly and destroying record acreage.
California alone experienced a fivefold increase in annual burned area between 1972 and 2018, and this year more than 5 million acres have already burned in California, Oregon and Washington State. Over time, wildfires are becoming more frequent, and the seasons are growing more intense.
On Tuesday, fires continued their widespread destruction across much of the West, taking advantage of tinder-dry brush and undergrowth primed for disaster by the increased temperatures and dryness from climate change. Smoke made the air over Portland the worst in the world, and the San Francisco Bay Area set a local record after nearly a month of hazardous air quality alerts — conditions that research has linked to health problems.
The increasingly dangerous conditions are testing the limits of traditional firefighting techniques, experts say. “You can’t look to wildland firefighters to protect you if you don’t address the complexities of climate change,” said Jim Whittington, a former spokesman for firefighting agencies.
The firefighters rely on techniques developed over the decades to hold fires at bay.
Along with using helicopters and tanker aircraft to drop the water and flame retardant, there is arduous labor on the ground. Some of it requires carefully burning areas in the path of an advancing