Fire season in West expected to get more intense

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Despite widespread drought in the West and expectations of an above-average wildfire season, wildfires have burned less than half the 10-year average area so far this summer.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said Wednesday that largely has been a matter of luck, with the hot windy weather known as “red flag” days not lining up with the lighting strikes that start most fires, particularly in California.

But that is changing, he said from Washington, D.C. Eighteen large fires were burning in the Northwest with intensities not normally seen until August.

With only about $1 billion budgeted for fighting wildfires, the Forest Service expects to once again have to tap other funds, such as forest thinning projects, to continue fighting fires as the season goes on into the fall, Tidwell said. Last year, that amount was $500 million.

“If we can stop a fire from coming into a community, we will stop it,” he said. “Cost is just an outcome. It isn’t what drives our actions. What drives our actions is safe, effective suppression tactics.”

The largest wildfires — 1 percent of blazes across the country each season — take up 30 percent of wildfire spending. The Obama administration has proposed changing the way those fires are paid for, tapping Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster funds rather than taking from other programs within agency budgets, said Jim Douglas, director of the Department of Interior Office of Wildland Fire.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and others have filed legislation to do the same thing. Wyden said the current situation makes matters worse by curtailing programs like forest thinning that will reduce future fire danger.

Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report warning climate change is contributing to longer and larger fire seasons, and efforts to protect new homes in forests are driving up firefighting costs.

Overall, wildfires have burned 2,471 square miles across the nation this summer, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The 10-year average for this date is 6,016 square miles.

Since getting started by lighting about 10 days ago, fires in Washington and Oregon have burned across 1,394 square miles of timber and rangeland. They have destroyed more than 150 homes, most of them in Washington state, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland.

Another series of thunderstorms across the region Tuesday and Wednesday produced rain and cooler temperatures that have helped fire crews increase containment of the fires. But the weather also produced more than 20,000 lightning strikes that resulted in at least eight new small fires in Washington, and 25 in Oregon, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland.

Arizona, California, Idaho and Nevada each had one large fire burning, and Utah had four, the Idaho fire center reported.

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