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Firefighters risk cancer and heat stroke as UK braces for more wildfires

Having been ‘decimated’ by cuts, fire services must risk personal safety as climate change worsens heatwaves

Indra Warnes
9 August 2022, 12.15pm

Smoke and flames fill the air as a field fire blazed in Ripon, North Yorkshire, July 2022

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Mick Flynn / Alamy Stock Photo

When Isaac Steen gets home from a long day at work, he doesn’t spend his evening worrying about a looming deadline or a curt email. He fears the cancerous toxins that might have seeped into his body over the course of his shift – and whether he’s bringing them home to endanger his family.

Steen is a 28-year-old firefighter from Essex. Days before we spoke, he’d been on duty during July’s three-day heatwave that saw temperatures in England reach a record-breaking 40.3°C and wildfires break out nationwide.

During the heatwave, Steen’s Basildon fire station – one of 51 in Essex – received 25 emergency callouts a day, up from what he estimates would typically be around 10 in a 24-hour period. The team was stretched to the limit – sometimes not even able to get one fire under control before being redeployed to another.

Many of the calls he attended were wildfires, which Steen says are every bit as dangerous as a house fire – if not more so.

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“Most firefighters will tell you, any time you've been to a field with grassfire, not only are you blowing black out your nose for the next week, you’re coughing just black out your throat as well, and you'll be smelling it on you for the next four or five days,” he explains.

“The moment you get in a shower, your pores open up a little bit in that heat and that smell comes out, or you smell it on your pillow. But now we know that that's not just a smell. These are cancer-causing particles that are in your skin, residing in your body.”

Firefighters are four times as likely to be diagnosed with cancer than the general public, according to a 2020 report by the University of Central Lancashire, commissioned by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU). Just last month, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a World Health Organization body, declared firefighting a carcinogenic occupation.

These are cancer-causing particles that are in your skin, residing in your body

Steen says the risk of exposure to carcinogens is heightened because the challenging conditions involved in fighting wildfires mean it’s more difficult to take the two main precautionary steps – prevention and decontamination.

Prevention refers mostly to the specialist protective gear and breathing apparatus worn by a firefighter. This is harder to wear during wildfires, which are typically fought in especially hot weather, take far longer to extinguish and are much more physically exhausting to get under control.

In the event of a house fire, Steen explains, two to four firefighters might work for a 20-to-30-minute stint, before swapping out with other firefighters.

“Whereas… when you turn up to a field fire, even when there’s say four [fire engines] there, it's all hands on deck,” he says. Everyone is needed to try to get the fire under control, so those who aren’t operating a pump – if you can access water at the site of the wildfire, which is not a given – are running around with ‘beaters’, a rubber mat attached to a pole, used “to literally beat the fire back”.

This can continue for several hours at a time, in incredibly hot temperatures – meaning firefighters struggle to keep on their full personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Your body would cook. Our fire gear does a really good job of stopping heat getting in. However, it does the same in reverse, it stops heat getting out,” Steen explains. “That's why heat exhaustion, heat stroke, is a real danger to us.”

At least four firefighters in London and Yorkshire were hospitalised with heat exhaustion during the three-day heatwave last month, while more than a dozen others received medical treatment.

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With prevention not always possible, firefighters instead turn to rigorous decontamination to rid themselves of the toxic particles as quickly as possible.

In Sweden, which Steen describes as a world leader in protecting firefighters, fire stations often have saunas, which are the best way of drawing particles out of the skin.

Steen half-laughs: “I don't feel like we're going to be anywhere near a position where we can start getting saunas at stations, unfortunately. Getting air con is hard enough as it is.”

Instead, his station operates a ‘clean cab’ policy, involving what he describes as a “festival shower” – thoroughly cleaning oneself with wet wipes before leaving the scene – then immediately returning to the station to have a hot shower and pick up clean PPE.

In the recent heatwaves, though, proper decontamination was also not possible – there simply wasn’t time to shower or change. Firefighters in Steen’s station were “having to travel the entire length of the county” fighting one fire after another. Sometimes they would be en route to one fire while calling the station to report having seen “plumes of smoke – like, multiple plumes of smoke – on the horizon”.

“We were constantly going out – we weren't able to [do] decontamination for hours and hours and hours,” says Steen, explaining the decision to sacrifice personal safety. “We felt it was our responsibility to protect the public.”

‘Cut to the bone’

Besides the long-term risk posed by carcinogens, wildfires expose more immediate problems for the UK’s fire services.

“[Wildfires] spread quicker than a firefighter can move... they spread at a rate that we simply can't match,” explains Riccardo La Torre, a national officer at the FBU who served as a firefighter for 18 years.

This means more people are needed to fight them – particularly as wildfire seasons become longer and more intense as the climate crisis progresses. But La Torre says firefighters’ warnings to Conservative ministers “have fallen on deaf ears”.

“Chief fire officers and politicians have just continued with their cuts agenda and decimated us,” he says. “Since 2010 we've had 11,500 firefighters cut – that's 20% of the workforce gone.”

La Torre says the real-life implications of these cuts were more visible than ever in last month’s heatwave.

“What's scandalous is there were firefighters fighting these fires desperate for reinforcement, for resources, putting in back-up calls and being told they simply couldn't have it because we haven't got any,” he says.

“[Meanwhile] there are fire engines sat empty and dormant in fire stations all over the country because we simply don't have the firefighters to crew them and get them out the door.”

Riccardo La Torre

Riccardo La Torre, national officer at the Fire Brigades Union

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Fire Brigades Union

This not only takes its toll on firefighters, La Torre adds, but severely impacts the mental health of those on the receiving end of the emergency calls.

“They’re trying to somehow move these pieces around the chessboard that they simply just don't have,” he tells me. “You know, people screaming down the phone to them and not being able to send the available resources because they're not available – it’s horrific stress and pressure on our control operators.”

Asked how the government could support fire services moving forward, La Torre is firm. “We need a return of those 11,000 firefighters as a starting point, we need a serious injection of central government funding to not only do that but then to prepare, to train, to resource what we need to fight and be prepared to fight this ever-growing risk as a result of climate crisis.”

He adds: “And then on top of that… they need to start treating their firefighters fairly. You know, they've seen their pensions unlawfully stolen, they've seen a real-terms pay cut of over £4,000.”

La Torre is referring to the fact that between 2009 and 2021, firefighters’ real salaries fell by 12%. The FBU is now reportedly considering industrial action, including striking, after rejecting an offer of a 2% pay increase.

There are fire engines sat empty in fire stations all over the country because we don't have the firefighters to crew them

A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “We have brought forward the most comprehensive set of fire reforms for decades, with the launch of the Fire Reform White Paper this May. This work aims to bring forward improvements to deliver higher standards and consistency across fire and rescue services to keep the public safe.”

But Steen remains unconvinced, saying his colleagues are being forced out.

“We're cut to the bone,” he says. “The funny thing is that in the fire service… it used to be unheard of for people to leave. it was completely unheard of [for] someone [to be] leaving the job not through retirement, but now it seems to be happening regularly.

“I think it's down to how we're treated. It's down to the fact that the pay is not livable anymore, and it's just going to be getting worse now this cost of living crisis is driving us further into, unfortunately for some people, poverty.”

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