“We currently remain at National Preparedness Level 5, our resources are fully committed and there are no season-ending weather events in the foreseeable forecast,” said National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group chair Aitor Bidaburu in a statement. “Because of the current level of commitment and forecast, having fire management expertise from Australian and New Zealand firefighters will be of tremendous help as we continue suppressing ongoing fires.”
As of Thursday, there were 76 large fires across the United States, including 14 in California, 17 in Idaho, 11 in Montana, 12 in Oregon and 16 in Washington.
To see why more help is needed, you need only read this Los Angeles Times story, about a Washington state fire chief in Stevens County, Rick Anderson, who had to fight off a blaze with a “small crew of volunteers” after his repeated calls for help went unanswered.
As the story reads:
First, he called surrounding fire agencies for help. They were already overwhelmed by other wildfires.“Nobody came,” he said.Next, he called the county.“Nobody came,” said Anderson, who also works as a communications specialist for the sheriff’s office.Then he called the Washington Department of Natural Resources.“They had nobody to come help us,” he said.
Also in Washington state, three firefighters died this week, fighting a blaze when their vehicle apparently crashed and a fire overtook them. “These were three big heroes protecting small towns,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday. “These are people who were lost doing what firefighters do, which is to rush toward the fire, rather than away.”
This is not the first time that the United States has relied on firefighters from so far away. There’s a history of such international collaboration with Australia and New Zealand, going back to the year 2000, which the National Interagency Fire Center says is “the first time their firefighters fought fires on American soil.”
The United States has also sent its own firefighters to these countries when they need aid: 67 to Australia in 2007 and 73 in 2009.
The reason this works, according to the NIFC, is that the two countries are “very similar to the United States national fire organization in training requirements and structure.”
Superlatives are warranted when discussing this year’s U.S. wildfire season. It started out with a large burst of activity in Alaska — where 5.1 million acres have burned so far, in the second worst wildfire year on record — and then shifted to the lower 48. Here, the total acreage burned has not been so large (it’s hard to compete with Alaska in this respect). But so many large fires have erupted in so many different states in the past week or more that the Level 5 preparedness designation was needed to attempt to fight them all simultaneously.
As of now, 7,210,959 acres have been consumed, putting 2015 ahead of the pace of burn for all of the past 10 years.
It is only since 2004 that the United States has seen a national wildfire season with over 8 million acres burned, with reliable records going back to 1983. Starting with that year, there have been six of them.