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American inferno: Wildfires burn out of control

We're revolutionizing our approach to wildfire. But for the millions of people affected by flames in 2015, change will almost certainly come too late.

Wildfires are scouring America with unprecedented range and frequency. They are menacing more homes than at any time on record.

In a scary parallel development, we’re also fighting these fires the wrong way. We’re risking lives and property, and turning billions of dollars into ash.

Those are the top notes off a fresh pile of data, analysis and proposed legislation. As a whole, the work could revolutionize the way we deal with wildfire. But for the millions of people affected by wildfires in 2015, change will almost certainly come too late.

RELATED: Washington wildfire burns 3,000 acres, destroys two dozen homes

“We’ve been playing catch up,” Stephen Pyne, a leading academic fire expert, told msnbc. “Now all the needles point in the wrong direction. They point to larger fires, more severe burning, and basically a fire scene that is out of our control.”  

There is, of course, a terrible irony here. A million years ago, man brought fire under human control. From there it’s pretty much a straight line to modern climate change. We’ve managed to heat up the world with the things we’ve burned. Now unwanted fires are spreading.

Let’s start with Alaska, which is perhaps the most fire-eaten place on the planet this year.

Nearly 5 million acres have burned, leaving a combined dead zone larger than the state of Connecticut. The latest state fire report says “acreage totals are nearly one month ahead of 2004,” the worst year on record.

Not that anyone is really surprised.

Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the continental United States. Temperatures are up nearly 3 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1950s. The extra rays have liquefied snow and melted glaciers, launching fires earlier in the year, and expanding their potential range. Climate Central, an environmental research group, tracked the results for a study published last month.

It found that fire season in Alaska is on average 40% longer than it was in the middle of the last century. It’s also many times more powerful. The drier weather fosters double the number of large fires (1,000 acres of more), and 10 times as many mega-fires (10,000 acres of more).

But it’s not just Alaska.

Hundreds of fires are right now blowing through Washington state and California. The Golden State has suffered 1,000 more fires this year than at the same point in the five years past, according to state data. While fewer acres have burned, the charred land includes 11,000 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest. It’s been at least 100 years since that area burned, according to The Los Angeles Times.  

RELATED: Obama administration lays out doomsday climate change scenario

Even the moss-covered forests of Washington state have been lit by multiple large infernos. One fire took a savage swipe through a lush section of Olympic Peninsula. “I’ve never implemented a burn ban in June,” one fire manager told National Public Radio. “I’ve never seen something like this.”

And yet, 2015 is in keeping with a decade-long explosion of fire in America.

Modern fire seasons now include seven times as many fires that are over 10,000 acres, as compared the average year in the 1970s, according to Climate Central. How shocking is the data? Typically quiet researchers felt compelled to give our new normal a loud new name: “The Age of Western Wildfires.”  

Worse, the threat of wildfires is expected to intensify in the years ahead. The planet has been enveloped by hotter, drier “fire weather,” according to a study published this week, co-authored by a scientist from the U.S. Forest Service. That has extended the burn season almost 20% worldwide since 1979. In the U.S., meanwhile, the number of fires could double again by 2050, the data show.  

With the proposed Wildfire Management Act of 2015, Washington state Sen. Maria Cantwell hopes to re-make our approach to fighting these fires. She laid out the case in a surprisingly, well, fiery white paper published last month. It addressed virtually everything people like the fire historian Stephen Pyne say is wrong about the way we fight wild fires today.

Cantwell wants to discourage more mindless construction of new communities in known fire zones, capped by flammable roofs, and absent even a basic evacuation plan. She wants a lot more money for clearing the kind of brush that charging wildfires gulp down like Gatorade. She wants the response to the worst wildfires funded out of FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, the same way we pay for hurricanes or any other natural calamity. She wants us to pick our battles with fire.

“This bill,” Cantwell writes, “rests on a recognition of the fact that not all fires can be fought, not all structures can be protected, and no lives should be risked only to defend” homes or property. Cantwell expects to introduce her bill sometime this summer.

Cantwell wants to let some fires burn, calling for clear guidelines about which ones. She also wants a lot of money for a restored program of “controlled fires,” intentionally set and carefully monitored by professionals. These last ideas are likely to be among the most controversial. They’re certainly counter-intuitive. If this is the “The Age of Western Wildfires,” it seems downright bizarre to stand down on some fires and start some of our own.

But in many cases, a small fire suppressed by man is just a large fire put off for another day. Almost every forest burns eventually. With this in mind, wildfire experts have been recommending controlled and semi-wild fires for years.

Recently, however, fewer and fewer people have listened. “I’m not in despair,” said Pyne. “But we’re on a razor’s edge, and it’s not clear which way we’re going to go.”