A wild season for wildfires

  • Richard and Kathie Reeves embrace as they stand in the remains of the home of close friends that was destroyed in a wildfire several days earlier, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015, in Middletown, Calif. The fire that sped through Middletown and other parts of rural Lake County, less than 100 miles north of San Francisco, has continued to burn since Saturday despite a massive firefighting effort. 
  • Robert Hooper, exhausted after several days with little sleep, is overcome with emotion while surveying his property that was burnt by the so-called Valley Fire near Middleton, Calif. Sept. 14, 2015. The Northern California wildfire ranked as the most destructive to hit the drought-stricken U.S. West this year has claimed one life and burned at least 400 homes to the ground, fire officials reported on Monday, saying they expected the property toll to climb. 
  • A wood burning stove stands in the ruins of a home that burned in the Valley Fire as seen on Sept. 15, 2015 in Middletown, Calif. The 104-square-mile fire is only 15 percent contained and has destroyed 585 homes so far and hundreds of other structures. 
  • A burned out truck is seen among scorched trees after the Valley Fire raged near Cobb, Calif., Sept. 14, 2015.
  • A firefighter is seen through destroyed cars as he searches for victims in the rubble of a home burnt by the Valley Fire in Middletown, Calif., Sept. 14, 2015.
  • Two firefighters battle the Valley Fire around the South Lake County Fire Protection District’s Middletown station along State Route 175 on Sept. 13, 2015 in Middletown, Calif. 
  • Firefighters with the Marin County Fire Department’s Tamalpais Fire Crew monitor a backfire as they battle the Valley Fire on Sept. 13, 2015 near Middletown, Calif. 
  • Stacked firewood burns next to a home during the Valley Fire on Sept. 13, 2015 in Middletown, Calif. The fast-moving fire has consumed 40,000 acres and is currently zero percent contained. 
  • A house is engulfed in flames as firefighters attempt to put it out during the Valley fire in Seigler Springs, Calif., Sept. 13, 2015. 
  • Flames from a backfire on Highway 29 rise above a firefighter battling the Valley Fire in Lower Lake, Calif., Sept. 13, 2015. 
  • Ezequiel Cervantes, whose father’s home was spared as the Valley Fire raged down Highway 175, surveys a neighbor’s destroyed home in Middletown, Calif., Sept. 13, 2015. 
  • Burned out remains of vehicles and homes scorched by the Valley Fire line Wardlaw St. in Middletown, Calif., Sept. 13, 2015. 
  • A dead horse lies beside Highway 175 after the Valley Fire raged through Middletown, Calif., Sept. 13, 2015. The rapidly spreading wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes and chased thousands of residents from their homes. 
  • Firefighters with the CalFire Santa Clara Unit rest along Highway 29 during the Valley Fire on Sept. 13, 2015 in Middletown, Calif. 
  • A burned truck and structures are seen at the Butte Fire on Sept. 13, 2015 near San Andreas, Calif. California governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in Amador and Calaveras counties. 
  • A firefighter surveys a home destroyed by the so-called Valley Fire near Middleton, Calif., Sept. 14, 2015.
  • A firefighter covers his face while battling the Butte fire near San Andreas, Calif., Sept. 12, 2015. 
  • Flames rise near a tree on the ridge line above several homes on Twisp River Road just after midnight, Aug. 20, 2015 in Twisp, Wash.
  • An air tanker drops red fire retardant on a wildfire near Twisp, Wash., Aug. 19, 2015.
  • The sun is seen through smoke from the Chelan Complex Fire, in Pateros, Wash., Aug. 17, 2015. The U.S. Army mobilized soldiers on August 17 to reinforce civilian fire fighters stretched thin by dozens of major wildfires roaring largely unchecked across the West, with more than 100 homes reduced to ruins in several states.
  • A firefighter battles the so-called “Cabin Fire” in the Angeles National Forest near Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 14, 2015.
  • A burn operation is seen along Morgan Valley Road during the Jerusalem Fire on Aug. 11, 2015 near Lower Lake, Calif.
  • A car burned in the Rocky Fire is shown near Lower Lake, Calif., Aug. 4, 2015.
  • In this Aug. 3, 2015 photo, a firefighter hoses down part of a brush fire near the South Jetty at Fort Stevens State Park in Warrenton, Oregon. Numerous other wildfires in California, Washington state and Oregon took off as the effects of drought and summer heat turned the West Coast combustible.
  • Smoke rises from the Rocky Fire on August 3, 2015 near Clearlake, Calif.
  • Cal Fire firefighters monitor a backfire ahead of the Rocky Fire on August 2, 2015 near Clearlake, Calif.
  • Firefighters watch as the Rocky fire burns near Clearlake, California, Aug. 1, 2015. The fire, one of dozens raging in drought parched Northern California, has destroyed 24 residences and scorched 25,750 acres, according to Cal Fire.
  • Goats run away from their pen after firefighters freed them as the Rocky Fire approaches on July 31, 2015 in Lower Lake, Calif.
  • A firefighter from Kentfield, California, sprays water on a building that started to burn during a back fire operation while battling the Rocky Fire on July 30, 2015 in Lower Lake, Calif.
  • Firefighters work to dig a fire line on the Rocky Fire in Lake County, Calif., July 30, 2015.
  • Firefighters watch the Rocky Fire advance in Lake County, Calif., July 30, 2015. The Rocky Fire broke out on Wednesday afternoon in Lake County, 110 miles north of San Francisco. By Thursday morning it had spread to 8,000 acres (3,237 hectares), according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.
  • A wall of flames lurches over a ridge as a resident of Morgan Valley Road near Lower Lake, Calif., prepares to evacuate because of the Rock Fire, Wednesday evening, July 29, 2015.
  • The Reynolds Creek Wildland Fire burns in Glacier National Park, Montana, in this photo taken July 21, 2015.
  • A prison inmate hand crew hikes to a paved road after cutting a hand line around part of the Pine Fire outside of Wrightwood, Calif., July 18, 2015. The Pine Fire burned over 125 acres.
  • Firefighter Jesse Hodorowski monitors the Saddle Fire burning in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Hyampom, Calif., June 13, 2015. 
  • Ground that was charred by the Sleepy Hollow fire continues to smolder as temperatures surpass 100 degrees Farenheit in Wenatchee, Washington, June 29, 2015.
  • A crew member from the Big Bear Hotshots lights a back burn at the Lake Fire in the San Bernardino National Forest, Calif., June 20, 2015.
  • Members of El Carrizo Hot Shots crew cut fire a line through the night to try to contain the Lake Fire in the San Bernardino National Forest, Calif., June 19, 2015.
  • In this June 17, 2015 photo from the Alaska Army National Guard, a “Bambi Bucket,” hanging from a helicopter releases hundreds of gallons of water onto the Stetson Creek Fire near Cooper Landing, Alaska.
  • A spotter surveys the Saddle Fire burning in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Hyampom, Calif., June 13, 2015.
  • In this June 7, 2015 photo, smoke rises from the Bogus Creek Fire, one of two fires burning in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Alaska.



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.

Photo Essay: Haunting images of the Blue Creek Wildfire in Washington

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.

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