Firefighting Climate Change

Firefighters around the world are risking their lives on the frontline of the climate crisis – and their experience proves that only collective action can save us.

A firefighter monitors the Dixie Fire as it burns close to a home on 16 August 2021 near Janesville, California. Credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

This summer has shown us very clearly what is meant by the term Extreme Weather Event. As I write, the death toll from floods and tornadoes in the United States is rising towards fifty. Earlier in the summer, floods killed 185 people in Germany and forty-one in Belgium. Not each individual extreme weather event can necessarily be directly linked to climate change, but it is clearly the case that climate change is producing more frequent and more damaging weather disasters.

2021 has brought this home with a vengeance. The US Pacific Northwest saw hundreds of deaths due to record high temperatures. This also resulted in deadly fires raging through California, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and Montana. Canada saw major fires in British Columbia, the Yukon, Manitoba, and Ontario. Temperatures also soared across southern Europe, with huge wildfires in Greece, Turkey, Italy, and Spain. In North Africa, Tunisia recorded a new record high of forty-nine degrees Celsius in the capital Tunis. Italy saw both extremes of the new weather regime, with floods in the north and devastating wildfires in the south.

Wildfires and floods are topics of ever-increasing importance to firefighters across the world as we try to share experiences and develop knowledge, tactics, and best practice. It is a tragically common occurrence to see firefighters killed each year in the USA as a result of the wildfires. In 2013, in one shocking incident, the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona killed nineteen firefighters. As in the UK, firefighting in the USA and Canada is highly unionised, so many of those who lose their lives tackling these terrifying fires are members of our sister union, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).

So the growing threats from extreme weather—floods, fires, storms, and drought—are an immediate industrial and safety issue for firefighters and their unions across the world. In the UK, extreme weather events have resulted in less severe damage than we have seen elsewhere, but nevertheless it is absolutely clear that incidents of wildfire and major flood have increased significantly over the past twenty years and now pose a major challenge to the fire and rescue service and other public agencies.

It is shocking that the level of destruction we have seen when we consider that the stories set out above primarily concern the wealthy countries of Europe and North America. The huge impact of weather events in these circumstances is also an indictment of governments at national and local level. There is a clear failure in planning and preparation considering the scale of the threat. There has been a neglect of investment in infrastructure and public services, which could play a significant role in mitigating the impact of such events.

If the wealthy countries of Europe and North America have suffered in this way, the risk in the Global South is many times greater. The dead in the incidents mentioned above are in the hundreds; in the poorer countries this is hugely magnified. Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013 (the same year as the Yarnell Hill fire). It killed at least 6,300 people. The climate crisis is making the monsoons in India stronger, with one account reporting that there has been a threefold increase in the extreme rains which cause severe flooding. Climate change is also turning vast areas of the world into new deserts.

So, for many people, climate change is here and now: a new study recently linked climate change to five million deaths per year. While climate change is, of course, a clear and present threat everywhere, the bulk of these lives lost will be poor people from the poor countries of the world. It is not likely to be billionaires dying from oppressive heat close to the equator, fleeing from unprecedented flooding in South East Asia, or losing loved ones in Algerian wildfires.

For firefighters, climate change is not the abstract concept it may appear to be to some others. It is firefighters who are called upon to tackle wildfires and rescue people from flooding, rates of both of which are on the rise due to climate change. It is impossible to think that something is abstract when the effects of it are staring you in the face, particularly when those effects are a wall of wildfire flames or entire communities stranded in their houses as floodwaters rise rapidly.

It is impossible to understate the extent to which these direct consequences of climate change are dangerous to FBU members and firefighters across the globe. Wildfires mean firefighters risk dying as a result of smoke exposure or burns. Floods can result in drowning even in the most innocuous-appearing of them: for example, uncovered manholes are known to present a threat here.

But the risks of wildfires and floods for firefighters go beyond the obvious. Wildfires can release toxic contaminants such as mercury, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. Ongoing research is strengthening the likelihood that these are causing cancer, respiratory illness, heart illness, and other diseases among firefighters. It’s even been found that smoke from wildfires can increase Covid-19 risk. Meanwhile, firefighters tackling floods can expect to find things such as raw sewage or hazardous chemicals in the water they are wading through, exposing them to countless immediate harms and longer-term diseases.

Unbelievably, even as the pace of climate change has picked up, and with it the occurrence of these effects of it, the resources provided by the UK government for firefighters has remained woeful. The response to increasing flooding and wildfires in the UK has been to slash firefighter numbers by 11,200 (more than twenty percent of the workforce) and to cut central funding by thirty percent since 2013-14. What’s more, firefighters are reporting a lack of resources including boats, vehicles, and specialist protective equipment. In England fire and rescue services aren’t even given a clear statutory duty for flooding, meaning they can’t access the additional resources they need for it.

For the FBU, therefore, climate change and extreme weather pose immediate safety issues, about PPE, resources, safe procedures, and the need for sustainable investment. But we can’t stop there. Firefighters alone, even adequately resourced, can only help to mitigate the impact of climate change related events. Further action requires us to join together with a wider movement. We recognise that our position and our struggle is inextricably linked with the need to campaign for change internationally – and that change has to be fundamental.

When answering the question of how and with whom we build this struggle, there are some clear facts. While there are attempts to blame the whole of humanity for the climate crisis, the truth is that not everyone in the world has the same power or influence, and—relatedly—not everyone will suffer the same. We live in a world dominated by the narrow interests of a tiny minority and their endless drive for profit. Just look at the facts: 100 companies are responsible for seventy-one percent of global emissions, and deaths from climate change—happening today, as we’ve touched on, despite what oft-repeated ‘targets’ might imply—are concentrated in the less wealthy Global South.

Firefighters are just one more group of working people paying. But while there is a clear negative here—that there are so many more suffering—there is also great hope, and real strength. If we recognise our common struggle we can organise, resist, and fight for change.

Doing so is very likely the only way we will be able to halt and mitigate climate change. Over forty years the market has shown itself to be incapable of providing the radical change we need. Climate change is often recognised as the ultimate ‘market failure’; despite this, those in power continue to look to market-based solutions. That means democratic social ownership and control over the key resources which could make a difference—including our energy, transport, and finance systems—is necessary alongside broader plans for a green industrial revolution with workers, trade unions, and communities at its heart.

The FBU rule book includes a preamble which makes the case for ‘the socialist system of society.’ When we are addressing the existential threat from the unfolding climate catastrophe, it really is a case of socialism or barbarism.