Disaster search-and-rescue teams are becoming even more vital in a world under increasing effects of extreme weather events due to climate change, and as hundred-year events become annual hells to survive, America's first responders are struggling with the ever-growing physical, mental, and emotional toll.
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.
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.
Republicans ignoring climate change on behalf of their rapid base and dee-pocketed donors is literally killing us one disaster at a time. And it's killing the people who are supposed to save us in disasters because they are being burned out.