Wildfire Season So Far: Tragic, Destructive And Below Average
It may seem like wildfire Armageddon out there, given the tragic deaths of 24 wildland firefighters this year, more than 800 homes and businesses burned to the ground, nearly 1.6 million acres scorched and over 23,000 blazes requiring suppression.
But as dramatic as it's been, the 2013 wildfire season has yet to kick into high gear.
"We have seen, overall, less fire activity so far this year," says Randy Eardley, a spokesman at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
In fact, the number of fires and the amount of acreage burned are each down about 40 percent from the 10-year average for this time of year, according to NIFC statistics. So far, this is the second-slowest wildfire season in the past decade.
Credit a wet spring in the Southeast for stemming the usual outbreak of big blazes there. And in the opposite corner of the country, in the Northwest, "they've had cooler and wetter weather coming into the summer months," says Ed Delgado, a fire weather forecaster for the federal Bureau of Land Management.
"Their green period has been prolonged," Delgado adds, "so they're not getting fire as early as they normally would."
But that's about to change. Delgado has a new wildfire forecast out and it has hopeful news for the fire-weary Southwest, where some of this season's most destructive and tragic blazes have occurred.
"I think we'll see fire activity in the far Southwest starting to wane," Delgado reports, citing the onset of the summer monsoon season, which brings both higher humidity and rain. They help diminish the spread of wildfire and help keep new blazes from sparking.
Much of the rest of the West, however, should expect the heavy fire activity summer normally brings. And a vast region stretching from Northern California through Oregon and into portions of Washington, Idaho and Montana is expected to have "more significant" and "above normal" wildfire.
"We'll have fire in other parts of the country," Delgado says, "but those areas [in California and the Northwest] are the areas that we expect fire to be more significant than we would normally see; larger, more prolonged fires than we typically see this time of year."
The potential for disastrous fire persists for portions of the Southwest and Southern California, where moisture in grasses, shrubs and trees in some areas is at record dry levels.
Eardley says the nation's wildfire corps is ready, despite sequester-mandated budget cuts that left 500 full-time, highly trained firefighter positions unfilled.
"While I'm not going to say that those fewer fighters on the payroll is not going to be felt, we'll just have to manage what we have a little bit differently," Eardley adds.
So far this year, more than 13,000 firefighters have been deployed, including support crews, according to NIFC. The peak deployment was on June 15, when 7,000 firefighters and support staff were tackling blazes. Today, about 5,700 people are fighting fire.
Fire managers can call on contractors if they run low on firefighters. There are also "reservists," recently retired firefighters who are still certified. Last year, more than 8,000 retirees were mobilized, according to Eardley.
In the worst fire seasons, as many as 20,000 firefighters and support crews were working all at once.
So far, the U.S. Forest Service and BLM have spent more than $546 million suppressing wildfires. That's a rough figure, Eardley cautions, given fluid spending during the season. The two agencies have together budgeted $790 million for firefighting.
Eardley says the agencies will tap into the budgets of other programs if they exhaust fire suppression funds. The "last-case scenario," he says, is to borrow money to pay the wildfire bills.
"I think we're going to have our hands full," Eardley adds, given the forecast for the rest of the fire season.
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So far, the wildfire season has been tragic and destructive and it's about to intensify, according to a new forecast. NPR's Howard Berkes is keeping track of fires that have developed to date and talking with forecasters about what is yet to come.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: It certainly seems like wildfire Armageddon out there.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORTS)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Nearly a thousand homes in two communities north of Los Angeles have been evacuated as a wind whipped wildfire burns more than 40 square miles in the Angeles National Forest.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The number of homes destroyed by Colorado's Black Forest fire has more than tripled.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Nineteen firefighters were killed while battling a massive fire in Arizona. This is the deadliest night for U.S. firefighters in 80 years.
BERKES: But as dramatic as it is, this wildfire season hasn't really kicked into high gear yet. Randy Eardley is a spokesman at the National Interagency Fire Center.
RANDY EARDLEY: With the exception of those scattered ones, yes, we have seen overall less fire activity so far this year.
BERKES: It's about 40 percent below average for this time of year, even with 1.6 million acres scorched and 23,000 wildfires. Ed Delgado is a fire meteorologist for the Federal Bureau of Land Management and he says the Southeast didn't have a big spring fire season. And out West...
ED DELGADO: In the northwest, they've had cooler and wetter weather coming into the summer months, so their green period has been prolonged. And so, they're not getting fire as early as they normally would.
BERKES: But a big shift is underway, according to Delgado's new forecast. Summer monsoon humidity and rain is beginning in the fire-weary Southwest, while excessive heat and persistent drought will take its toll elsewhere.
DELGADO: I think we'll see fire activity in the far Southwest starting to wane. And we'll see fires beginning to increase across the Northwest from Northern California through Oregon, parts of Washington, Idaho and Montana. We'll have fire in other parts of the country, but those areas are where we expect fires to be more significant than we normally see. In other words, larger more prolonged fires than we typically would see this time of year.
BERKES: In the worst years, 15 to 20,000 firefighters and support crews are working all at once. The busiest day this season had 7,000 people deployed. Sequester budget cuts have cost the fire force 500 full-time firefighting jobs. Eardley says fire managers will make do.
EARDLEY: While I'm not going to say that those fewer firefighters on the payroll is not going to be felt, we'll just to have to manage what we have a little bit differently.
BERKES: Which means calling in contractors and the reserves - firefighters who are recently retired but still certified. More than 8,000 retirees were deployed last year. Given the forecast, it appears they'll be needed again.
Howard Berkes, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.