Wildfire Season: Longer and Stronger in '08

July 9, 2008

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Last week, nationwide wildfire preparedness was designated the highest possible level. The challenge is much bigger than simply funding fire engines.

In late June, President Bush declared a state of emergency in northern California as firefighters scrambled to control about 1,400 raging fires. Since then, national headlines make it seem like the entire West Coast is burning.

Wildfire season began early this year, when a stubborn April blaze burned northeast of Los Angeles. In California, drought, thickening underbrush, high temperatures and lightning storms have contributed to more than 800 square miles being burned since June 20, when severe thunderstorms passed over northern California and ignited more than 1,300 fires.

"At last count, there were more than 300 wildfires burning in California," stated an editorial in yesterday's Ventura County Star.

Later in the day, fires had burned 960 square miles in the state, with 323 active fires (at the time this article was written) continuing to consume land and threaten more than 10,000 homes, commercial buildings and other structures, according to the Forestry Department, also known as CalFire.

"Not only in California, but in the greater West, a season that used to run from May into August or September — depending on the area — now starts in April or earlier and can stretch into October," The Christian Science Monitor notes. At the start of May, wildfires continued to burn in the Southwestern United States, as well as in central California, Florida and the Southern Appalachians, according to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC).

And in the Great Basin states of Utah, Nevada, southern Idaho and eastern Oregon, fire season has only just begun. As the summer moves on, the season will flow north into the Pacific Northwest as vegetation there dries out.

U.S. Forest Service officials recently told the Associated Press they are concerned there may be more wildfires than usual this summer, given the lower-than-average rainfall and activity so early in a season that typically peaks in late July and August.

The number of wildfires in the U.S. has increased from 7.2 million acres (2.9 million hectares) in 2002 to 9.3 million acres (3.8 million hectares) in 2007, Scientific American reports.

So far this year, there have been more than 46,000 wildland fires, covering more than 2.9 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). As of this morning, there were 68 large fires actively burning more than 630,037 acres throughout the nation.

This rate of blazing rightly has many homeowners and business owners worried.

Preparedness and Prevention

Last week, the already fiery 2008 season and a forecast for more hot, dry, windy conditions in parts of the West prompted the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group, comprised of top federal and state fire managers from various agencies, to raise the nationwide preparedness level to 5 — the highest possible rating.

That means looking at national approaches, Rich Nieto, the regional fire operations director for the Southwest Coordination Center, told AP. "It might mean mobilizing the National Guard because other resources are exhausted," he said.

In past years, the nation's average fire-preparedness levels (PL) for June and July hovered around a moderate 2 or 3. The PL is set by each of the 11 geographic areas in the nation, and is based on the complexity and severity of fire activity and resource (including fire crews) commitments.

PL-5 represents major fires that have the potential to exhaust national firefighting resources throughout several regions.

As the number of catastrophic wildfires in the U.S. has steadily risen, and as they start sooner and last longer, this puts a strain on crews as well as budgets.

According to Scientific American this time last year, the nation has spent more than $1 billion annually to suppress large wildfires in eight of the previous 10 years.

"In 2007," according to The Christian Science Monitor, "only 20 percent of the fire budget for the federal agencies that deal with wildfires went to hazardous fuel reduction, prevention and education programs. In California, the vast majority of fire funds go to putting out fires — the cost of which has more than doubled in the past decade."

California has spent more than $100 million fighting the latest blazes, Bloomberg News reported yesterday.

California firefighters say small fires have exploded into sweeping, multimillion-dollar conflagrations because the U.S. Forest Service has been unable to contain them during the early "initial attack" stage, says a report recently issued by the National Park Service. Much of this is a result of "poor spending decisions" and "high job vacancy rates," another local paper, The Monterey Herald, notes of the report.

"[O]fficials from the local on up to the federal level must make a much greater effort at fighting fires before they start," The Christian Science Monitor proposes. "Over time, fire prevention has the greater potential to protect lives and property, yet it continually receives the short end of the financial fire hose."

Such prevention measures could lead to smarter building materials and habits, for example. At the beginning of this year, California became the first state to mandate flame-retardant construction on new buildings in fire-prone areas.

For now, though, any solution clearly will require more than just throwing money at these fires after they burn.

Earlier: From Paradise to Ash in Days

Resources

National Fire Information Center National Interagency Coordination Center/National Interagency Fire Center, July 9, 2008 (updated daily)

National Climatic Data Center

Officials Predict Longer and Stronger Fire Season by Sue Major Holmes The Associated Press, July 7, 2008

Wildfires Spread in California by Adam Hadhazy Scientific American, June 30, 2008

National Fire Leaders Increase to Highest Preparedness Level National Interagency Fire Center, July 1, 2008

Predicting Wildfires by Patricia Andrews, Mark Finney and Mark Fischetti Scientific American, July 2007

Editorial: An Endless Fire Season? Ventura County Star, July 8, 2008

Much of U.S. West Coast Under 'Explosive' Fire Threat (Update2) by Brian K. Sullivan Bloomberg News, July 8, 2008

Preparedness Under Fire: Federal Firefighting System Understaffed, Report Shows by Julia Reynolds The Monterey Herald, July 7, 2008 (last updated)

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