Sep 7, 2017 - Energy & Environment

Resources 'stretched thin' fighting massive wildfires in the West

Data: NASA MODIS; Map: Lazaro Gamio / Axios Dots are infrared anomalies, most caused by fires, as seen from space. The dots disappear when they're obscured by smoke or clouds, and sometimes the satellite picks up things that aren't fires. The brighter the dot, the more likely it is to be a wildfire.

Smoke from over a hundred wildfires burning across the west is smothering the country. Thousands have been evacuated, and homes have been burned. 26,000 firefighters are burning, bulldozing and dousing flames to protect homes and lives. The above graphic shows the spread of the fires since July 15 as detected by NASA's satellites.

As the graphic shows, the fire season got off to a late start, so it's not the worst on record yet. But there are so many fires burning at once, there aren't enough people to fight them all. "We're stretched pretty thin right now in terms of resources," Jessica Gardetto, a spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center tells Axios.

The numbers:

  • 140 fires are burning almost 2 million acres.
  • As of Thursday morning there are 213 helicopters, 1,833 fire engines and over 26,000 people actively fighting fires.
  • The estimated firefighting cost to date is over $271 million in Oregon and Washington alone.
  • In British Columbia, Canada, over 3 million acres have burned, making it their worst fire year in history.

A logistical nightmare: Many of the fires are burning near homes and urban areas, and with limited resources they're taking priority over rural fires, causing conflict. At a public meeting in Oregon's Illinois Valley, where 4,000 people are evacuated, incident commander Noel Livingston told concerned residents "We're not going to get more help." The 1600 people currently fighting the 176,000 acre fire are all that's available.

It's easy to think that fires only impact you if you're under evacuation, but effects can be felt across the country. Agencies are reporting AQI, or air quality indexes, well over 400. AQI's over 100 are considered dangerous to those with pre-existing health conditions. Anything over 300 is considered hazardous for all and triggers "health warnings of emergency conditions." On September 6, parts of Montana recorded an AQI of of over 600.

  • In Portland, Oregon, public pools have been closed to encourage children to stay inside.
  • In Moscow, Idaho the university is handing out masks to filter smoke from fires in Montana.
  • Near Denver, Colorado a school district has canceled recess due to smoke from fires in the Northwest.

Why it's happening, the short answer: Record-high temperatures have plagued the West since July, and it's one of the driest summers on record, John Abatzoglou, who researches fires at the University of Idaho, tells Axios.

Why it's happening, the long answer: "It's a combination of two factors," says Abatzoglou:

  1. Climate change: "We've seen a trend for the last 50 years of hotter, dryer summers in the West. Climate change is playing a role in enabling these fires to occur over a broader portion of a fire season, burning under more extreme conditions."
  2. Past fire management practices: Fires are a normal part of the forest cycle, and thin out underbrush. But decades of intense fire suppression means that theres more fuel to burn, so today's fires are worse than they would have been.

Many of these fires will continue to smolder until the winter rains come. For some in Montana, they can't come soon enough. People have been under evacuation orders since early July.

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