Wildfires Push Resources to Brink as Weather Worsens
August 21, 2013
An informed observer writes me:
The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) has placed the U.S. at the highest Preparedness Level: 5. This means: “Geographic Areas are experiencing major incidents which have the potential to exhaust all agency fire resources. 80 percent of Type 1 and 2 IMTs and crews are committed, as well as the majority of other national resources.” This is a nice way of saying that fires are increasingly likely to burn more acreage and potentially more structures (including homes and businesses) because we are running out of firefighters, rested pilots, equipment, etc. to deal with them. For lack of a better word, we are at or near a tipping point where the fire season could rapidly become a lot more costly. The decisions about who gets what resources under these circumstances can be very controversial.
To date, 31,986 wildfires have burned 3.4 million acres in the United States this year. While both of those figures roughly represent only about 60% of the ten-year average, wildfire activity has escalated in recent days after thunderstorms, many with little or no moisture, moved across parts of California, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, sparking hundreds of new fires.
With 51 large wildfires currently burning across the U.S., the nation’s firefighters have been placed on a war footing — known as “National Preparedness Level 5.” It’s the first time that step has been taken since 2008, according to Wildfire Today, and it reflects the combination of high fire activity, the large amounts of firefighting resources already committed to wildfires, and the expectation for more fires to erupt in the coming days as hot, dry weather continues across the West.
This year has been marked by particularly devastating blazes. Colorado saw its most damaging wildfire in its history, which killed two people and destroyed more than 500 buildings. And in Arizona, 19 members of an elite firefighting unit were killed when they were overtaken by flames near the town of Yarnell on July 31.
The ongoing fires may be stretching already thin firefighting resources, but the number of wildfires isn’t unusual, at least in the context of the past decade. So far this year, there have been about 32,000 wildfires in the U.S., according to NIFC data, with 3.4 million acres burned. That compares to a 10-year average of 53,000 fires by this point in the year, with about 5.4 million acres burned. Last year, which was a particularly brutal wildfire season, nearly 6.9 million acres had already burned by this point in the year.
Those statistics won’t come as consolation to the residents affected by the current spate of fires, nor do they tell the bigger picture story, which is of a steadily worsening wildfire regime in the West.
Researchers predict that the area burned in the West may quadruple for every additional 1.8°F of average surface temperature rise. That is particularly ominous, since according to the most recent climate model projections contained in the draft U.S. National Climate Assessment, average temperatures could rise between 2°F and 4°F across most of the U.S. within the next few decades, and by as much as 8°F by 2100.