In August 2018, we told the story of the wildland firefighters tackling the record-breaking blazes tearing through the backcountry. Since then, the deadliest wildfire in California’s history—the Camp Fire—brought the threat of wildland fires closer to home, completely destroying the town of Paradise in November. We recently spoke to Burk Minor, director of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, about the devastating effects of the worsening fire seasons, and the unique toll firefighting can take on the men and women tasked with protecting us.
For many people in the country—particularly those in western states—wildfires are part of life. Distant smoke plumes are a regular sight throughout summer and autumn, and a watchful eye is kept fixed on the weather forecast in case of a ‘red flag’ fire warning. But while the frequency of wildfires remains steady, their intensity is growing exponentially.
Six of California’s 10 most destructive wildfires have hit in the past four years, and when the Camp Fire struck in late 2018, the state was already in the grip of its worst fire season on record. Burning for 17 days, the Camp Fire scorched more than 150,000 acres of land, destroyed 18,000 structures, and claimed at least 86 civilian lives—as well as the lives of five firefighters.
As the Camp Fire raged towards Paradise, the Wildland Firefighter Foundation was still reeling from an overwhelming amount of requests for help following the Carr Fire just three months previously.
“We were receiving so many calls that we were forced to establish a temporary branch to handle everything”, explains the Foundation’s director, Burk Minor. “And most of the enquiries were to deal specifically with helping firefighters who’d lost their homes while firefighting.”
Established in 1999 following the Storm King disaster in Colorado in which 14 firefighters lost their lives, the Wildland Firefighter Foundation exists to support the families of firefighters seriously injured or killed in the line of duty. Each year they help with roughly 500 individual cases, but this year was different.
Back in July, firefighter Blaine Littleford was working his second season with the Trinity Hotshots when the call came in. His crew would join two others for an initial attack on the Carr Fire—pulling a 36-hour shift in an attempt to tame the then relatively small blaze close to its origin in the Whiskeytown district of Shasta County. After a forced break they returned to learn the fire had grown to 20,000 acres overnight and, due to high winds carrying embers, had leapt across the Sacramento River on a path for the small town of Keswick—Blaine’s home.
“As soon as I heard the fire had jumped the river I knew my house and vehicle would be gone by that night” says Blaine. “The fire moved at a vicious rate. The hills surrounding Keswick were full of head-high manzanita—a thick shrub that is extremely flammable when dry—and this was all that separated our community from the flames. My house, vehicle, and our entire town was wiped out.”
Following the fire, Blaine received assistance from the Wildland Firefighter Foundation to help get him back on his feet. He was given money to replace the clothes, toiletries, and essentials he lost. But rather than dampen his resolve, his experiences only enhanced it: “What I went through allows me to empathize with victims and potential victims of wildfires on a personal level. I’ll continue in this line of work for as long as I’m physically and mentally capable of doing it—to help save and manage our lands and to protect life, property, and the environment.”
Three months later, in early November, the Camp Fire erupted in Butte County, Northern California. Much like the Carr Fire, ferocious wind speeds of up to 50 miles per hour whipped the flames west from their origin at Poe Dam towards the towns of Concow and Paradise.
Between the Camp and Carr Fires in 2018, the Wildland Firefighter Foundation helped more than 100 firefighters and their families—a 20% increase on their average year. And while last year’s fire season broke all previous records, Burk predicts next season will be no different.
“The northwest has been pounded with snow, and now we’re moving into spring that snow is going to melt—taking the top layer of vegetation with it, making room for brush to grow. The type of vegetation that, once dried out in August, is what we call flashy fuel. This is just my opinion—and I’ve been in the business for 30 years—but we’re looking at another devastating season of wildfires.”
Record year or not, Burk and the Wildland Firefighter Foundation will continue their objective of helping the brave men and women on the front line of the fires. They’ll be at their bedsides in the burn centers, supporting family members who’ve lost loved ones, or simply offering a hand to those whose workplace hazard has cost them their home.
“I tell anyone who’ll listen that the wildland firefighter is the most underrated public servant walking this planet” says Burk. “They deserve every bit of support—financial, emotional, or just pats on the back—available, and our hearts are thankful for their tireless dedication to what they do.”
Throughout the year, Backcountry will be supporting the Wildland Firefighter Foundation with the Stoke Series, events taking place across the country designed to fuel your outdoor passions. We’ll be donating 100% of proceeds to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation in honor of the men and women working to protect our homes and public lands. Head to our events page now and sign up for a Stoke Series event near you.?