This story has been updated.
Wildfires are exploding across the western United States, overstretching resources and, in some states, resulting in tragic consequences.
Some 30,000 firefighters and additional support staff are now fighting fires across the United States — the biggest number mobilized in 15 years, according to the U.S. Forest Service. And it’s still not enough.
Two hundred members of the military are being called up to help further — they will be trained and deployed within just a few days — as are Canadian firefighting forces. There’s even some talk of potentially needing to draw on resources from Australia and New Zealand, which has been done before in a pinch.
And no wonder: Five states are now battling more than 1o large wildfires — California is contending with 16, Idaho 21, Montana 14, Oregon 11 and Washington 17. Most terrifying, perhaps, is the Soda Fire, which has scorched 283,686 acres in Idaho, burning up ranches, killing wild horses, even generating an alarming fire whirl recently.
The total acres burned so far in 2015 is now a staggering 7.1 million, with currently burning fires accounting for over 1 million of that total. “This is the earliest the number of national acres burned has been more than 7 million in the past 20 years,” notes the National Interagency Coordination Center — although the center acknowledges that 5 million of those acres burned in Alaska earlier this year.
There is no year, in the past 10, in which year-to-date wildfire acres burned were as high as they are now. In fact, based on records provided by the National Interagency Fire Center, only nine years since 1960 have seen more acres burned in total than 2015 has as of August 18. The most acres burned in any year on record is 9,873,745, in 2006.
It isn’t immediately clear why the center suggests that the 7.1 million acres burned so far is merely unprecedented “in the past 20 years” — its records show that if you go back further than 20 years, only one year, 1963, even has 7.1 million acres burned in total.
The United States is at wildfire preparedness Level 5 — the highest — and has been since Aug. 13.
What has been particularly alarming in the past day or so is developments in Montana and Idaho, battling 35 large fires between them, including the gargantuan Soda Fire. In these states and in the Pacific Northwest, fires are being started by thunderstorms that are delivering lightning strikes without much rain.
A weekend video showing deputy incident commander Rob Allen discussing fires in the Chelan area of Washington State gives a sense of what firefighting planners are currently facing. As Allen put it:
Competition for resources right now is extremely tight. As of yesterday there was outstanding orders for crews of 160 crews. They’re still looking for, there are no more shower units, there are no more catering units. A lot of the stuff we rely on to come in and give us a hand is being used….The truth of the matter right now is that between Oregon, Washington, Northern California, Idaho got very busy, Nevada’s busy, Colorado’s busy, there’s just a real strain in all the resources we have right now.
And that was several days ago — the situation appeared to have heightened even further Tuesday.
The gigantic convulsion of fire activity makes a report released two weeks ago, by the U.S. Forest Service, seem prescient. The agency sounded the alarm about rising wildfire costs, saying that fighting fires will consume more than 50 percent of its budget this year and could be up to two thirds of it by the year 2025, based on current trends.
According to the Forest Service, the U.S. spends $ 100 million per week when it is at wildfire preparedness level 5, as it is now.
“Fire seasons are growing longer, hotter, more unpredictable and more expensive every year, and there is no end in sight. Within just 10 years, two out of every three dollars the Forest Service gets from Congress will be spent on fire programs, which leaves much fewer resources for the very restoration projects that have been proven to reduce the risk of wildfire and improve forest health,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement provided to The Post (his department includes the Forest Service).
“We are at a tipping point. Congress must change the way it pays for wildfires by providing a fiscally responsible way to treat catastrophic wildfires more like the natural disasters that they are, end fire transfers, partially replenish our capacity to restore resilient forests, and protect lives and property against future fires.”