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Facing Reality: Firefighters on the Climate Frontlines

“The climate is changing and we’re seeing the effects of that on the frontline by more and more fires, more frequently, and more severe.”


Growing up, a lot of kids want to become firefighters. Days spent dressing up in plastic red helmets and yellow jackets and putting out imaginary blazes with the garden hose. Why wouldn’t we? Unlike Superman or Wonder Woman, firefighters are real, in-the-flesh heroes.

At our Climate Reality Leadership Corps training in Los Angeles, we were honored to be joined by some of these real-life heroes for a panel, including:

  • Ken Pimlott, Director of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection
  • Martha Karstens, Chief of Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade
  • Ken Thompson, Former Deputy Fire Chief of New South Wales

During the panel, these first responders spoke with former Vice President Al Gore about their experiences on the frontlines – and the connection between climate change and the global rise in deadly, destructive wildfires from California to Australia.


Facing Reality: Firefighters on the Climate Frontlines

Climate change is already increasing the risk of wildfires and creating conditions in many parts of the world that make fires more likely and more severe. This live presentation of first responders will explore the connection between climate change and the global rise in deadly, destructive wildfires from California to Australia.

Posted by Climate Reality on Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The panelists covered a lot of ground during their time on stage. Here are three takeaways about climate change straight from firefighters themselves: 

1. Climate Change Is Real

“You can’t help but look at the fires now that are burning and see [climate change] is why.” – Chief Karstens

Every first responder on stage could agree: over the course of their long careers, they’ve seen the nature of fires change in both California and Australia. Above all, firefighters are experiencing the same things scientists are observing: first, that fires are bigger than they used to be and second, that fire seasons are longer than ever.

Climate change literally adds fuel to the fire. Simply, warm weather is coming sooner and lasting longer. Precipitation patterns are changing and drought is coming more often.

Together, these factors mean conditions are consistently dry – creating what Chief Pimlott calls a tinderbox. As he said, “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. The vegetation in this state, in the western United States, is changing. It is so receptive. We call it 100 percent probability of ignition. Which means on any afternoon around the West, any spark that lands has a 100 percent chance of starting a fire. And you put a little bit of wind on that and the fire quickly races away from firefighters.”

And for Chief Karstens, this fact hits especially close to home. After being paged to a fire down the ridge from where she lived, she discovered her own home was surrounded by fire: “When I walked out my front door, it was there… It was devastating to watch your own home burn down.”

And worst of all? This wasn’t happening in the peak of fire season – it was 10 days before Christmas. As she said, “This should not be happening in December… It’s a year-long fire season now in California.”

Chief Ken Pimlott underscored it well: “If you don’t think the climate is changing, you haven’t been on the frontlines.”

2. It’s Bad

“We are facing greater risk… [wildfires] are placing firefighters in jeopardy more and more every day.” – Chief Pimlott

When we fail to act on climate change, we’re putting firefighters at risk. In Australia, Chief Thompson reports that fire season now runs for nine months out of the year. “The climate is changing and we’re seeing the effects of that on the frontline by more and more fires, more frequently, and more severe,” he said.

The bigger a fire is, the greater the risk it poses to the people who fight it. And according to Chief Pimlott, “Fires are spreading at rates unlike they’ve ever spread… It would usually be the exception to the rule to have a fire that was more than a hundred thousand acres now that's common. We've had several already this year.”

In California, six firefighters have already died in 2018. While firefighters understand the risk they take when they take the position, the risks are high enough without climate change making them worse.

3. And We Can Solve It 

“I know that one person can have an impact.” – Chief Thompson

During the panel, Former Vice President Gore asked the panelists, “What can we do to help you?”

The answers touched on both practical and policy matters. First, there were the simple steps that every homeowner can take to, as Chief Pimlott said, “give firefighters a fighting chance.” These include:

  • Removing vegetation and creating a defensible space around your home;
  • Not mowing your lawn or weeds at the hottest point in the day; and
  • Knowing how to use anything with a heat source properly while outdoors.

But we can all do our part to protect firefighters by taking climate action and demanding our leaders do the same. As Chief Thompson said, “The thing I’d encourage people to do, most or first and foremost, is to talk to their politicians and get them to realize that climate change is a real issue and that policies and resources need to be allocated.”

In addition to being a former deputy fire chief, Chief Thompson is a trained Climate Reality Leader. He’s been giving presentations on the reality of the climate crisis for over 10 years and has seen minds and hearts transformed by the time his talks end. “I get so many people that come up to me after those presentations and say to me, ‘Now I get it, now I understand. It didn’t make sense before.’… The vast majority of people, once it’s been explained to them… they act on the message.”

When Firefighters Speak Out on Climate Change, It’s Our Responsibility to Speak Up

If you’re feeling inspired after hearing Chiefs Karstens, Pimlott, and Thompson speak, there are plenty ways you can turn that inspiration into action. Here are three ways you can help solve climate change: