Lightning, High Winds Fan Western Wildfires
By Cat Lazaroff
WASHINGTON, DC, August 17, 2001 (ENS) - More than 22,000 firefighters are now battling wildland blazes across the western U.S., and a new fire forecast released today does not offer much hope for relief in coming weeks. The National Interagency Fire Center declared a Level 5 alert Wednesday - the highest alert level possible - and began talks with several branches of the military to help control the fires that now threaten homes and businesses in dozens of communities.
"Fire activity in the Northwest is a critical situation and continues to be our main priority," an NIFC spokesperson said today.
Washington state is currently the hardest hit. Four new large fires sprang up in Washington state overnight, and winds blew others out of control. The Icicle Creek Valley in central Washington is now under a mandatory evacuation, while vacationers in popular tourist destinations, including Lake Chelan and Leavenworth, are also being forced to leave.
At least 17 hikers and backpackers in Washington were airlifted to safety this week after flames cut off their routes to safety.
Near Ashland in the southern portion of the state, fire is threatening stands of old growth forest that shelter threatened northern spotted owls.
More than half a million acres across 10 states are in flames, and the nation's fire fighting resources are stretched to their limits. To make matters worse, many of the firefighters now on the ground are seasonal workers - college students, for the most part, who will be returning to classes in just a few weeks.
More firefighters have been called in to help, from as far away as New Hampshire, but those units could soon be needed at home - a new NIFC fire forecast released today predicts high fire danger across New England this fall.
"The National Guard is also providing about 250 Guard members from eight different states to assist firefighters in their efforts," said Rear Admiral Craig Quigley in a Pentagon briefing on Tuesday.
All of the military personnel will require some specialized training in dropping fire retardants and fighting fires on the ground. By early next week, some of these teams will be fighting fires - but only the smaller fires, which do not require as much experience to combat.
State and federal officials are taking as many precautions as they can, banning campfires and keeping campers out of the driest areas.
"The prudent thing to do is to not take further risks with our forest resources," said Jim James, general manager of western timberlands for Willamette Industries. "We ask the public for cooperation during this difficult fire season. These closures will be in effect until the weather conditions reduce fire danger."
Already this year, millions of federal dollars have been spent or allocated to pay for firefighting costs in western. The nonprofit group Taxpayers for Common Sense says the high costs show that the federal government's approach to dealing with wildfires is "seriously flawed."
"Putting thousands of firefighters on the frontlines to battle western wildfires makes for dramatic headlines, but it isn't always necessary," said Jonathan Oppenheimer, a forest expert at Taxpayers for Common Sense. "The federal government's failure to plan for wildfires wastes tax dollars and needlessly risks the lives of many brave men and women."
"The federal government seems to prefer to write huge checks after the fact, rather than coming up with a solid game plan to deal with the wildfire issue," continued Oppenheimer. "Congress and the Forest Service are flying blind here, and unfortunately no one seems interested in acting on the critical reforms needed to fix the problem."
Oppenheimer authored last year's analysis of the 2000 wildfire season, "From the Ashes: Reducing the Rising Costs and Harmful Effects of Western Wildfires."
Last year, the United States spent an estimated $1.3 billion fighting 122,827 wildland fires across the nation, according to the NIFC. Yet 8,422,237 acres till burned in 2000, well above the 10 year average of 3,786,411 acres.
Ongoing drought conditions combined with record high temperatures in the Pacific Northwest, Great Lake states and New England mean a very active fire season throughout the fall, the NIFC predicts.
"The dry winter and multiple year drought conditions has left much of the U.S. at risk to wildland fire," the agency reported this week.
Fire conditions are now listed as "critical" in northern Nevada, northern California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.