Burning Out

Search and rescue teams train for the worst conditions. But the worst conditions are getting worse. Are they ready for the next big disaster?

Sarah Trent | Longreads | November 2019 | 22 minutes (4,920 words)

Jack Thomas was home in time for dinner, but he wasn’t really home. His head was still in the fire, gnawing on the details of what his strike team had accomplished, hazards they’d found, a care facility they’d partially saved from the flames. For 19 hours of their nine-day deployment, his team had fought to save those 25 senior apartments, which had somehow been spared when the wildfire tore through town. Thomas knew that if they could stop the fire at the building’s central atrium, these homes would stay standing. And they did.

Walking through his front door, in a suburban Santa Rosa, California, neighborhood the weekend before Thanksgiving, Thomas still smelled of smoke.

He had dinner with his wife, shared photos from the fire, and talked through their holiday plans. Afterward, he unfurled parcel maps across the table while his bags waited, packed, on the couch. After more than a week fighting the most destructive wildfire in California history, the Santa Rosa fire captain had just a few hours to study the maps and get some rest: His deployment on a fire crew was over, but hundreds of people were missing, and FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force #4 needed someone to help manage the search.

Thomas set his alarm for 3 a.m. He was going back to Paradise.

That night, the next morning, and for many days after, trained search and rescue professionals and volunteers from across California and beyond drove into the smoldering heart of catastrophe. The Camp fire, which started the morning of November 8, 2018, and within hours had overtaken the town of Paradise, was unprecedented: in size, pattern, intensity, damage, and number of people missing, which climbed as high as 1,300. It required the largest search in state history — in conditions few of the searchers were trained for. But to leaders like Thomas, it seemed a portent of things to come: Wildfires are becoming more common and worse. And other disasters are, too.

Rachel Allen got to Paradise two days before Thomas, after dark on Friday, November 16, joining the first wave of volunteer searchers responding to the call for mutual aid. It was the earliest she could arrive, leaving her postdoc research behind for the weekend. A member of the Bay Area Mountain Rescue (BAMRU) team since 2012, she has deployed to dozens of searches across the state, usually for one person missing in the wilderness: a snowshoer lost in a storm, a hiker injured and stuck off-trail, or a person with Alzheimer’s who wandered away from home.

She and her team spend hundreds of unpaid hours each year practicing specialized search and rescue skills. But in Paradise, little of their training in snow conditions, rope systems, or tracking was relevant. Allen wore a white Tyvek suit over her hiking boots and learned how to identify what was typically the only trace of people who hadn’t escaped the blaze: small fragments of bone.

When Thomas arrived Sunday morning, just in time for the morning briefing, searchers in a rainbow of red, orange, and hi-viz agency-branded jackets filled the Tall Pines Entertainment Center parking lot: county search teams, mountain rescue teams, law enforcement, the National Guard, all ready for the day’s assignments.

Thomas joined the fray with USAR Task Force #4 — one of 28 teams in the nation equipped for large-scale disaster relief. Most USAR members, like Thomas, are professional firefighters. On top of a grueling season fighting record-setting wildfires, this was his team’s third urban search deployment in as many months. They’d been to the sites where Hurricane Florence made landfall that September. Where Michael had hit in October. And now this. 

New kinds of disasters require new response plans and training, and bigger ones need more people who know what to do.

All weekend, the air was thick with smoke and a pervasive otherworldliness. “If you had told me I was on Mars, I’d be like, ‘OK, right,’” Allen told me. She searched for two days, mostly in silence, wearing a mask she had to remove to speak. Her hiking boots sank with every step into ash up to eight inches deep. The sky was a murky orange. Trees were still green. Everything else was gray. It was a town like any other. But everything had changed.

In 2018, wildfires swept not only California, Australia, and Greece, but also the colder, wetter landscapes of England, Ireland, and Sweden. Kerala, India, was hit by one of the worst floods ever recorded, killing more than 500 people; a heat wave hospitalized 22,000 in Japan; and a series of tropical storms and typhoons affected more than 10 million across the Philippines. A bomb cyclone slammed the U.S. Northeast. Avalanches crushed Colorado. Mudslides buried Montecito, California. Record-breaking hurricanes battered the Southeast. As of this writing, what has come to be known as “fire season” is well underway in California, and fires blaze in New South Wales and Queensland, Australia. 

To climate scientists, the pattern of increasing extremes comes as no surprise — it’s in line with projections for life on a warming planet. And at 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit above average, according to NASA, 2018 was one of the hottest years on record. 2019 is on track to be hotter.

When disaster strikes, rescuers like Thomas and Allen drive toward the danger the rest of us are desperate to escape. They’re trained to find us when we’re stuck somewhere — lost, injured, or worse. But a changing planet has raised the stakes: Avalanches, tornadoes, fires, and floods fill news cycles with counts of the missing and cell phone footage of neighborhoods turned to wilderness. The U.N. warns that climate catastrophes are now happening once a week across the globe. And unpredictable shoulder seasons — the busiest months for search and rescue calls — are getting longer. New kinds of disasters require new response plans and training, and bigger ones need more people who know what to do.

Search and rescue teams train for the worst conditions. But the worst conditions are getting worse. Search teams are stretched. Rescuers are burning out. We are all less safe.

***

On a May 2013 day in Naujaat, in the Canadian province of Nunavut — an Inuit hamlet known at the time as Repulse Bay — the local search and rescue team was called after a nearby traveler activated an emergency GPS beacon. It was a day with almost 18 hours of sunlight, but blizzard conditions postponed the search.

The call itself was unremarkable — Nunavut search and rescue records are full of similar reports: emergency signals turned on in harsh weather, hunters who’ve run out of gas, a group trapped by moving ice. Nearly everyone is brought home safe. But one trend is nonetheless alarming: In 2016, researchers showed that search and rescue calls in the province had doubled over a decade.

The reasons were complex. More powerful boats and snowmobiles carried hunters, fishers, and travelers farther from safety; people’s preparedness for harsh conditions had not kept pace with their ability to travel so far; high costs to maintain equipment led to makeshift repairs and more frequent breakdowns. But one factor stood out: As the Arctic warms — and it’s warming faster than anywhere else on earth — weather and ice conditions have become less and less predictable. 

“It’s the perfect storm” for accidents and the ensuing calls for rescue, researcher Dylan Clark told a Canadian Senate committee in 2018. And this storm is anything but localized.

In Iceland, where tourism is booming and glacier driving tours are popular, the ice is melting, opening crevasses that threaten vehicles and people. A woman died in 2010 after falling into one with her 7-year-old son just a short distance from a tour jeep. 

In the Alps, retreating glaciers have changed popular climbing routes, increasing exposure and difficulty on nearly all alpine climbs. Where there once was snow, there’s now ice. Where there once was permafrost, there’s now unstable rock. One catastrophic rockfall in Bondo, Switzerland, killed eight hikers in 2017. Their bodies were never found.

Search and rescue teams train for the worst conditions. But the worst conditions are getting worse.

Eddy Cartaya, a Portland Mountain Rescue volunteer and expert on glacier cave exploration and rescue, says that across the Pacific Northwest, more and more people are exploring the backcountry. Outdoor equipment is better and less expensive than ever, cultural interest in the outdoors is surging, and longer summers mean more access to beautiful, wild places. 

Normally, “deep snow-pack insulates some of these locations from inexperienced people,” Cartaya said. But that’s changing. Hiking into areas with now-melting glaciers — in which ice caves are prone to sudden collapse, volcanic gas-filled fumaroles are becoming exposed, and flash floods of glacial melt can occur on the bluest of bluebird days — even an expert outdoorsperson is more likely to run into trouble.

Many of these hazards are new to rescuers, too, making operations riskier for everyone. Now, Cartaya said, his team trains in glacier caves — areas most mountaineers spend their entire careers trying to avoid. After two rescues in noxious fumaroles, the team has purchased new equipment to measure crevasses for hydrogen sulfide. And with a higher volume of calls than ever before — to a group of volunteers in an industry where burnout is already high (few last more than a couple of years) — they’ve increased their recruitment efforts, tripling their most recent cohort of trainees.

But you don’t need to be a backpacker, hunter, or mountaineer heading deep into the wilderness to require rescue from a disaster compounded by climate change. Increasingly, that disaster is coming to us.

In Switzerland, rockslides have buried villages and stranded residents. In Alabama, devastating tornadoes have cut swaths through towns and neighborhoods. Across the Midwest, floods have done the same. In Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean, residents have evacuated from record hurricane after record hurricane. And all of this, according to climate scientists, is at least partially attributable to a warming planet, in which ice is melting at record speed and rising levels of atmospheric water are strengthening storms and producing unprecedented rainfall. 

While the Eastern U.S. is inundated with water, the Western states suffer without it: As temperatures rise, the snowpack melts faster and forests dry out. By late summer, much of California is a tinderbox. Any spark — lightning, a barbecue, a faulting power line — can set the whole thing off.

***

Ten of the 20 most destructive wildfires in California’s history have occurred since 2015. They include the two most destructive (2018 Camp and 2017 Tubbs fires), the two largest (2018 Mendocino Complex and 2017 Thomas fires), and the deadliest by far: In Paradise, searchers found 85 people dead. Two remain missing. This is more than the previous three deadliest fires combined.

For Thomas and his team, the Camp fire set another kind of record and, leaders believe, a precedent: It was the first time FEMA USAR teams had ever been called to a fire. Thomas and others doubt it will be the last. The federal program, which launched in 1991, was designed primarily to respond to catastrophic earthquakes. But as the nature of disasters has evolved, USAR task forces have too. In 1994, teams deployed to the Northridge quake in Los Angeles. A year later, to the Oklahoma City bombing, and in 2001, to downtown Manhattan after the World Trade Center attack. 

In 2005, all 28 teams went to Hurricane Katrina, and as the size and severity of hurricanes have increased since, so have the calls to USAR: Sandy in 2012. Matthew in 2015. Harvey, Irma, and Maria in 2017; Florence and Michael a year later; Dorian this fall.

Thomas went to most of them. “We’re in the water business now,” he said. And the fires? “I totally think that’s going to be in our scope now.”

As a firefighter of more than 30 years who fought the 2017 Tubbs Fire in his own city and countless more around the state, Thomas knows firsthand the ways wildland fires have changed. “It never used to be like this,” he said. When he first started, he’d go to one, maybe two “mutual aid” calls (that is, requests to help other agencies) per season, fighting wildland fires to the scale of around 10,000 acres. “Since 2015 it’s just been non-stop with these major fires,” he said. 


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In 2018, between USAR calls and wildland fire response, Thomas spent 75 days working outside Santa Rosa County, including 21 days in a row at the Mendocino Complex fire. When he came home from that blaze — which burned nearly 460,000 acres before it was finally contained — he had just enough time to move his daughter to college before he was deployed again.

“It pulls on your heartstrings to go help,” he said. But every time he arrives at base camp for another wildland fire, he sees the same guys, grim with fatigue.

“You can see it in guy’s eyes,” he told me. “It seems like it’s more and more and more and more.” Between fighting fires around the state, flying east for hurricane missions, and expecting that USAR’s scope will grow, the effort is not sustainable, he said. “But you know the thing is, who are you going to call? With the amount of missing residents, the amount of destroyed homes — who’s going to do that work?”

Headquarters for Thomas’s team — one of eight in California — is tucked between I-880 and the train tracks in East Oakland, behind a city vehicle maintenance facility. On a cold March morning, a dozen men and women in dark shirts and caps emblazoned with their agency logos — Pittsburg Fire, Sonoma Fire, Contra Costa Fire — ambled from room to room, catching up and collecting signatures for their annual reorientation exercise. 

Each member checked the fit of their issued full-face air mask, re-upped their baseline EKG test, and verified, essentially, that they knew the drill: Every checkpoint is a step they’ll repeat in the hours before an actual deployment. In the garage, Thomas signed off on helmet fits and asked each member if their go-bag was ready. 

“97 you said?” He searched for Tracey Chin’s duffel among the hundreds of numbered red bags on the shelves surrounding the garage. He found it and pulled it down, and she unzipped the pockets to inspect what was inside. She checked the size of the clothing, in case it had changed, and the toothpaste’s expiration date. The team has just four hours to deploy when a call for mutual aid comes in, and they must be prepared for 72 hours of self-sufficiency. The “creature comforts,” as Chin calls these basic necessities, are nearly as important as a tightly sealed air mask.

She zipped the bag closed over carefully folded T-shirts, and Thomas snapped a red plastic lock seal through the zipper pull. Her mask fit. Her photo had been taken. Her sign-off sheet was full. Chin was ready to deploy.

And this team fully expects to — though until recently, that was far from their norm.

“We went eight years without deploying,” said Oakland Battalion Chief Robert Lipp, who leads the task force. But since 2017, they’ve fielded six calls. Now, come autumn, when hurricane and wildland fire seasons are both in full swing, he said he’s “more surprised if we don’t go somewhere than if we do.” 

To climate scientists, the pattern of increasing extremes comes as no surprise — it’s in line with projections for life on a warming planet.

As the need for rescuers goes up, the whole response system is stretched thin. Two Southern California USAR teams, which largely pull on members from one fire department each, were undeployable for USAR calls last fall while wildfires raged in Riverside and Orange counties. The Oakland team is more insulated from that pressure: Its 230 members — enough for three full rescue units — come from 15 different departments. The team has never had to turn down a call for mutual aid, Lipp said. “But we’ve been awful close.”

“When there’s a disaster, we all want to go.” But, he added, “anyone who says it’s not worsening is not paying attention.”

***

On the first day of SAR-Basic — required for anyone who hopes to join Bay Area Mountain Rescue — 15 recruits listened and took notes as veteran members explained the weekend training. Wearing an array of technical fleeces and down coats, it was obvious that they were the newbies: Every sworn-in member wore a red jacket — BAMRU patch on one shoulder and the San Mateo County Sheriff star on the chest — to insulate against the early morning chill.

The first lesson in every emergency response training — from first aid through wilderness paramedicine — is the same, though every teacher has their own way to phrase it: The most important person at the scene is you; don’t let someone else’s emergency become your own; your safety comes first. Adrenaline and the powerful urge to help someone in need can be difficult to overcome — and dangerous to everyone. 

Under the county park picnic shelter, Nathan Fischer sat atop a long wooden table, his gray waffle fleece and close-cropped beard blending into this year’s cohort of mostly twentysomething men. With one leg casually folded, he absorbed the morning lectures. He, like everyone seated around him, was there in part to fulfill that urge to help. “Other people adopt kittens or mentor kids,” he told me. “I’m awful with kids, but maybe I can stop the bleeding.”

An instructor addressed the group. “The first rule of search and rescue,” he said, “is don’t create more subjects.”

This year’s safety talk was unusually personal for the team. Just months earlier, a Ventura County mountain rescuer was killed and two teammates were injured in a storm while trying to help the victims of a rollover crash. The team was en route to a training exercise. The roads were slick. Another vehicle lost control.

At every training station at SAR-Basic, the safety talk was reinforced. Fischer and the other recruits learned to perform a fine grid search, crawling shoulder to shoulder looking for shell casings in the dirt and leaves — while also scanning for poison oak. They learned how to load and carry a person in a titanium-frame litter — along with effective communication to spread the load, and to lift and move as one. Navigation skills, radio skills, tracking skills. And then, finally, a mock search.

Fischer, leading a team of three, talked his group through the details of the briefing. Two trail runners were missing. Their team had been assigned a trail to search. They grabbed a radio and a map and set out for the trail, flanked by mentors.

’It’s the perfect storm’ for accidents and the ensuing calls for rescue.

The mock search is an audition of sorts, at which members and the soon-to-be can feel out their future colleagues. Trust, teamwork, and leadership are as important as technical skill and search savvy. Those who are accepted to train with BAMRU will start deploying on calls as soon as they wish: Trainees join searches while they work through a long list of skill sign-offs and training exercises that typically take a year to complete. The best lessons — and the hardest — will come in the field.

After a morning of searching for the “missing” runners, Fischer’s team broke for lunch. Mentor Eric Chow — just a year into his own tenure on the team — knew that the action would soon pick up. He pulled Fischer aside. “What do you have for PPE?” Chow asked, using shorthand for personal protective equipment — namely, in this case, nitrile gloves. Fischer had none. Chow found a pair in his radio chest harness and handed them over. 

Then the radio blared, cutting into the quiet on the trail. Another team had found the last missing subject. Fischer looked at the map. They were close. When they arrived on scene, his wilderness medical training kicked in. He went straight toward the subject — a woman who had fallen off-trail and injured her leg — and joined another rescuer assessing her injuries. He removed her shoe and checked the circulation in her foot.

Uphill, proctors were watching. One of them whispered: “Where are his gloves?”

Blood is a hazard. Smoke is a hazard. Needles, nails, cornices, rocks, hypoxic subjects, moving vehicles. The powerful urge to help someone can come at profound personal cost. Forgetting safety precautions in an exercise merely means failure. Being without them in the field can mean creating more subjects. 

Physical safety is paramount, but psychological preparation is important as well: The emotional costs can be just as high.

This team typically deploys to difficult, far-away searches — ones that have already gone on for days without success. Stopping the bleeding (or rescue at all) is not usually involved: Often, they recover bodies.

Veteran team member Alice Ng is haunted by the search for a young mountaineer crushed by an avalanche. The recovery of a body brings closure to everyone, but this one hit her hard. The traumatic stop of this boy’s life, while doing something she might have done too; his family, walking in circles around the airfield, with nothing to do but wait. The day after finding him, while chopping vegetables for dinner, she suddenly broke down in tears. The task was so normal, she told me: “That can be taken away from you so quickly.”

For Eric Chow, one of the mentors who took part in the mock rescue, one search near Lake Tahoe was especially memorable. “We were in our element there,” he remembered. It was high angle, high altitude, in avalanche conditions, a search for one missing person. It was everything this team trains for. The Paradise fire, on the other hand, felt like the opposite. There were scores of bodies reduced to bone fragments, cesspits hidden under the ash, and “widowmakers” — the precarious branches of burned trees — that could fall at any moment. “We don’t know any of those hazards,” he said.

***

It’s difficult to plan or train for what’s never been experienced before, and in climate-influenced disasters, nothing is as it was. The Camp fire was apocalyptic. Michael St. John, long-time leader of Marin Search and Rescue and newly retired from the Mill Valley Fire Department, deployed to Paradise on day five of the blaze to help Butte County search coordinators and state search and rescue leaders wrap their collective heads around organizing such a massive search.

“What’s your PPE plan?” he recalled asking the leaders at search command. He knew they’d need air masks. Tyvek. Steel-shanked boots if they could find them fast enough. And decontamination facilities. When a forest burns, the smoke is dangerous. When a city burns — with all its plastics, paints, chemicals, and more — it’s deadly. If not today, then perhaps years from now when the cancers start growing, St. John said. And while many teams like BAMRU and Marin SAR have limited county insurance for in-field accidents, volunteers don’t get workers’ compensation. They just get sick.

You don’t need to be a backpacker, hunter, or mountaineer heading deep into the wilderness to require rescue from a disaster compounded by climate change. Increasingly, that disaster is coming to us.

From search headquarters at the Tall Pines bowling alley, where cots were set up in the bar and a rec room was converted to mission command, St. John searched Amazon for boots. A dozen deputies raided every Home Depot in the Central Valley for supplies. The National Guard was called to set up mass decontamination tents. 

On the first day of the search, central command ran out of P-100 masks, which offer more protection than the N-95 masks the public was encouraged to wear. Some rescuers who couldn’t get masks in the first days of the search, before donations poured in, turned around and went home. The air was so thick with smoke and particulate matter that it choked out even the sun. Just a few hours in Paradise was too much for some: The personal risk was just too great.

Over the week, St. John and search leaders troubleshot challenges. They had state, county, and federal resources at their disposal, and while every one of them was trained in the same incident command structure — a logistics and hierarchy system built to scale to any emergency — each group had its own culture, communications, and even GIS mapping systems. 

Leaders struggled to manage the growing list of missing people — and to commit enough resources to sort all 1,300 reports, winnow out redundancies, and narrow the search. As best they could under pressure, they integrated lessons from failures along the way, improving the system a little bit more every day.

And every day, the massive search continued across 240 square miles, where homes, stores, schools, and retirement homes — more than 18,000 structures in all — were now gone. Just the grid of streets remained, along with stone, metal, and randomly spared objects. Chimneys stood like sentries. So did radiators. Mailboxes. The intricate metalwork of a headboard. Cars had melted by the roadside, their metal shells resolidified as river-flows on pavement. 

As a USAR search manager, Thomas worked “forward reconnaissance,” evaluating structures and triaging search efforts before larger teams were assigned to move through. Allen, with BAMRU, led one of those teams, each member carrying a shovel or rake. In full, hooded Tyvek, with double-canistered P-100 masks on or around their necks, they searched house by house, block by block, using rake tines to pick through the dense mixture of ash and nails and metal debris.

They’d been trained on arrival to look for one thing only: yellowed or charred fragments of bone, just inches long, and barely recognizable.

They searched most carefully near the remains of beds. The fire had begun around 6:30 a.m., and by 8, it had rushed into Paradise. Mattress coils were easy to spot. Bathrooms were recommended as focus areas, too, but toilets were harder to find. Somehow, Allen said, most of them were gone.

On Sunday afternoon, on their last assignment of the day, Allen led eight BAMRU members to Cape Cod Mobile Estates, two miles up the road from search command. The sign was intact at the entrance, and the office was still mostly standing. They parked on the H-shaped road of the park, where every other structure had been flattened, their corrugated metal roofs collapsed onto the nothingness of ash. The group moved through quickly, in pairs, spending a few minutes at each structure before they focused on two that a deputy requested. As they finished each search, one member spray-painted an X on the driveway: standard communication in bright orange paint. At the top of the X, the date. At the bottom, a zero. No bodies found.

It’s difficult to plan or train for what’s never been experienced before, and in climate-influenced disasters, nothing is as it was.

Allen drove home that night with teammates, her Prius covered in gray, toxic ash. Once home, she struggled to explain the experience. The fires are too big, she’d told her friends and, later, me. The resources — masks and people and insurance coverage — are just not going to be enough, she said. “Now I know how the world ends.”

A few days later, Thomas went home to channel everything he had left into hosting 20 guests for Thanksgiving. When the last one left, he collapsed. For two whole days, he felt awful, and it took weeks to recover. Next year, he told his wife, he’ll turn down some of the calls. But that’s easy to say in the off-season — that annual period of rest which is, of course, getting shorter.

***

Months after the fire, on a sunny day in April, Michael St. John, enjoying retirement, was home from an early morning run up Mount Baldy. His neighborhood — and all of Marin County — was lush and green from heavy winter rains, and while fire danger was no doubt out of mind for most, it was weighing on his. California, after all, doesn’t stay green for long. He searched the state website from his couch, and even he was shocked to see that the first wildland fires of the year had already begun — weeks ahead of normal. 

St. John worries that the lessons from Paradise can’t be integrated fast enough: The season is too much of a crush. He worries about the Santa Ana winds — those northeasterly gusts that every autumn fan the flames. He worries that his county, too, is at risk.

When I asked him where he most worries about being affected by future wildland-urban fires, he climbed onto a table to read the small print on a huge wall map of California. He ran one finger up the entire eastern edge of the Central Valley, reading out the name of every major town it crossed. Porterville. Mariposa. Sonora. Placerville. This state was built to burn.

The Santa Ana winds are blowing again. National Weather Service meteorologists have called this season’s gusts dangerous, extreme, and historic. Across the state, vegetation is parched, humidity is low, temperatures have hit record highs, and some 60 miles north of St. John’s kitchen table, 78,000 acres are fresh, gray ash. At the height of the October Kincade blaze, the evacuation zone covered 180,000 people. Millions across the state were without power as utility companies tried to pre-empt even further disaster. The latest Predictive Services report, released November 1, says large fire potential could last through the end of the year.

And in the eastern Pacific, just south of Mexico, a cyclone is brewing. In England and Venice, flood banks are breaking, and this week 240 million Americans are experiencing a record-breaking “Arctic blast.” Everywhere—the Alps, the Andes, the Pacific Northwest—rocks and mud and poisonous gas are being freed from the ice. And every town, like Paradise one year ago, is on a precipice: It’s a place like any other, in a world that has already changed.

***

Sarah Trent is a freelance journalist covering the environment, food systems, economic development, and the ways everyday people around the world are affected by the climate crisis and environmental degradation.

Editor: Kelly Stout
Fact checker: Steven Cohen
Copy editor: Jacob Gross