A wild season for wildfires
Wildfires scoured America with unusual range and frequency this summer, menacing homes and highways across a half dozen states. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) last month raised the preparedness level to its highest point, freeing up additional military assistance, among other resources to fight the blazes. Despite the action, however, the fires appear to be creeping into the fall, with a new California “Valley Fire” forcing thousands to evacuate over the weekend, and burning through hundreds of homes and cars across Lake County communities.
Four firefighters have been hospitalized with second-degree burns since the fire began northwest of Sacramento on Saturday morning. By the afternoon, the fire had grown over 350 acres, and over another 50,000 acres by Sunday afternoon. California Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday night declared a state of emergency in Lake County.
The Valley Fire is only the latest in a series of flares that consumed the summer, when the NIFC said California’s persisting drought plays a significant role in the west’s burning.
“Given the continuing hot and dry weather and the increase in fire activity in the western U.S., the decision to move to Preparedness Level 5 depicts the complexity that fire managers are encountering to assure that adequate firefighting resources are available for protection of life, property and our nation’s natural resources,” Aitor Bidaburu, who chairs part of the NIFC, said in a statement. The move also reflects the sheer number of fires this year – 40,000 to date, torching more than 6 million acres—and the sense that fire conditions will continue for days to come.
Alaska has been perhaps the most fire-eaten place on the planet this year. About 5 million acres have burned there, leaving a combined dead zone larger than the state of Connecticut. The latest state fire report puts the pace of the damage ahead of the 2004 fire season, the worst year on record.
Hundreds of fires continue to blow through California, which has experienced 1,000 more fires this year than at a similar point in the five years past, according to state data. While fewer acres have burned overall, the charred land includes 11,000 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest that haven’t burned for at least 100 years, according to The Los Angeles Times.
In a marked change from past seasons, the moss-covered forests of Washington state have also been lit by multiple large infernos. One fire took a savage swipe through a lush section of Olympic Peninsula. Another inferno blew through a 10 mile stretch in the southeastern part of the state, near Walla Walla.
Wildfires have burned almost 300,000 acres in Washington, Oregon and Idaho in the past 90 days as of Wednesday morning, according to NBC-affiliate KING 5 in Seattle. That acreage amounts to all the land area of New York City and Seattle combined.
In August, thirty-four different fires were listed as active between those three states, including the 83,000 acre Soda Fire in southwest Idaho near the Oregon border.
The last time the national fire preparedness level was raised this high was 2013. But this year’s fires are remarkable because they may preview a future of still larger, more wide-ranging fires across the United States.
Modern fire seasons already include seven times as many fires that are over 10,000 acres, as compared the average year in the 1970s, according to a think tank called Climate Central.
That’s because the planet has been enveloped by hotter, drier “fire weather,” according to another recent study, co-authored by a scientist from the U.S. Forest Service. And that weather has extended the burn season almost 20% worldwide since 1979. Some studies suggest that we haven’t seen anything yet: the number of fires in an average season could double by 2050.