Jul 15, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Large wildfires have burned more than 1 million acres in a dozen states

Wildfire burning behind trees with smoke rising from the flames.
The Bootleg Fire burns on July 12, 2021 in Bly, Oregon. (USDA Forest Service via Getty Images)

Seventy-one large wildfires burning across the West have scorched more than 1 million acres so far this year in the U.S. Nine new large fires were added to the roster Thursday, as federal officials raised the national firefighting preparedness level to the highest posture as of Thursday.

Why it matters: In the midst of a relentless series of heat waves taking place in a region plagued by the worst drought so far in the 21st century, the forests and grasses located in western states are a tinderbox. The fire season is only expected to get worse from here.

The big picture: The Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon, which doubled in size for three straight days last week, has reached 227,234 acres in size, and Gov. Kate Brown (D) invoked the state's "Emergency Conflagration Act" to allow more resources to supplement firefighters already on the scene.

  • The Bootleg Fire was extremely active on Wednesday, and a towering mushroom cloud of smoke born from the fire's heat, smoke and ash, extending to the heights of most airliners.
  • Large fires are also burning in California, Idaho, Washington, and other western states. A rapidly growing blaze was touched off Wednesday near the site of the deadliest fire in California history, which destroyed the town of Paradise in 2018.
  • Smoke from these blazes and others burning in the U.S. and Canada have been spotted in the skies above southern Greenland and over Iceland, and will be transported above mainland Europe in the next day.

Context:

  • According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho, which coordinates the many firefighting agencies in the federal government, 17,000 personnel are already assigned to ongoing blazes.
  • This means that crews may be stretched thin by the time the peak of wildfire season arrives toward the end of summer and early fall.
  • NIFC elevated its national alert level from 4 to 5 on Thursday, "due to significant fire activity occurring in multiple geographical areas, an increase in incident management team mobilization, and heavy shared resources commitment to large fires nationally," the center stated on its website.
  • This was the earliest such a heightened alert level had been designated since 2011, NIFC stated on Twitter.

Repeat heat waves and drought conditions, both of which are linked to human-induced climate change, are driving the early increase in wildfire activity across the West, as well as in British Columbia, where tens of thousands of acres are burning as well.

Separate from these heat events, studies also show global warming is amplifying the risks of large wildfires in parts of the West, with the typical peak of the season still about two months away.

What's next: Another heat wave is on the way this weekend for a swath of the West, though it won't be as intense as previous bouts have been in states such as California, Oregon and Washington. Instead, the most unusually high temperatures look to affect Montana, Idaho, British Columbia and Alberta, worsening the fire situations there.

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