The 2020 Cold Springs Fire in Omak. (Okanogan County Fire District 6, file)

The 2020 Cold Springs Fire in Omak. (Okanogan County Fire District 6, file)

Officials hope to douse Western blazes fast, avoid megafires

2020 was one of worst years on record, with 10 million acres scorched and 18,000 structures destroyed.

By Matthew Brown / Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. — U.S. officials said Thursday they will try to stamp out wildfires as quickly as possible this year as severe drought tightens its grip across the West and sets the stage for another destructive summer of blazes.

By aggressively responding to smaller fires, officials said they hope to minimize the number of so-called megafires that have become more common as climate change makes the landscape warmer and dryer.

A similar approach was taken last year, driven by the pandemic and a desire to avoid the large congregations of personnel needed to fight major fires. Nevertheless, 2020 became one of worst fire years on record with more than 10 million acres of land scorched and almost 18,000 houses and other structures destroyed, according to federal data and the research group Headwaters Economics.

California and the Pacific Northwest were especially hard-hit, including an unprecedented million-acre fire in northern California. Wind-driven conflagrations in Oregon and Washington state burned into urban areas and triggered massive evacuations.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told firefighting personnel Thursday to brace themselves for another challenging year given the historic drought conditions. Haaland and Vilsack wrote in a memo to fire leaders that, “90 percent of the West is currently experiencing drought.”

“These conditions have not only increased the likelihood of wildfires but they have also strained water supplies and increased tensions in communities,” they wrote.

Large fires were active Thursday in Arizona, California and New Mexico and more than a half-million acres already have burned this year nationwide. The year-to-date figure is well below the 10-year average.

But the worsening drought is expected to bring with it higher fire danger that will spread from the Southwest into California, Nevada, the Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains by summer, officials said.

“Our focus is on smart firefighting, aggressive firefighting, catching these fires when they are small,” said Patty Grantham, acting director of fire and aviation at the U.S. Forest Service.

A shortage of resources last year hobbled firefighting efforts for more than two months at the height of the season. Twelve people involved in firefighting efforts were killed as were at least 45 civilians in Oregon and California, federal officials said.

Firefighters are able to put out about 98% of fires before they get out of control, according to federal officials. It’s the remaining 2% that cause most damage in terms of homes destroyed, said Kimiko Barrett, a wildfire researcher at Bozeman, Montana-based Headwaters Economics.

Yet more homes continuously are being built in fire-prone areas. Throw in climate change, and it’s a recipe for destruction, she said. Of the more than 89,000 homes and structures that have burned in wildfires since 2005, almost two-thirds were destroyed in the past four years, according to data compiled by Barrett.

“As wildfires gain in intensity and speed — what is referenced as extreme wildfire behavior — they are becoming much more difficult for firefighters to suppress,” she said.

For 2021, the Biden administration is seeking a 4% increase in wildfire fighting spending — to $2.5 billion — for the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior. An additional $1.7 billion is sought by the Forest Service to manage fire dangers including by thinning stands of trees, conducting controlled burns and other measures. That’s a $476 million increase, according to the White House.

Vilsack said forest treatment work to minimize fire risk can cost roughly $1,500 per acre, versus $50,000 per acre to put out a fire.

“We need to do a better job treating our forests, reducing hazardous fuels buildup that’s occurred over decades,” he said.

Talk to us

More in Northwest

FILE - In this June 19, 2020, file photo, people taking part in a Juneteenth march travel down 23rd Ave. in Seattle. President Joe Biden this week signed legislation establishing a new federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery – a move lawmakers made for Washington state earlier this year. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee last month signed a measure making Juneteenth a legal state paid holiday, starting in 2022. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Juneteenth becomes official state paid holiday in 2022

It also became a federal holiday when President Biden signed it into law this week.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee glances at an aide holding up an image of a visual slide being shown to viewers of a news conference, Thursday, June 3, 2021, in Olympia, Wash. Inslee announced that Washington will be the latest state to offer prizes to encourage people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Incentives will include a series of giveaways during the month of June including lottery prizes totaling $2 million, college tuition assistance, airline tickets, and game systems. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Judge dismisses Washington state governor recall petition

A group had alleged that Inslee’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic interfered with their rights.

Stunt rider dies attempting world record jump in Moses Lake

Alex Harvill crashed while trying to jump the length of a football field during an air show.

FILE - In this Dec. 16, 2020, file photo, Staff Sgt. Travis Snyder, left, receives the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine given at Madigan Army Medical Center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, south of Seattle. Nurse Jose Picart, right, administered the shot. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday, June 17, 2021, announced a new COVID-19 vaccine incentive lottery for the state's military, family members and veterans because the federal government wasn't sharing individual vaccine status of those groups with the state and there were concerns they would be left out of a previously announced lottery. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
New vaccine lottery announced for military in Washington

Gov. Inslee said there were concerns they would be left out of a previously announced lottery.

Mistrial halts case on minimum wage for immigrant detainees

Meanwhile, Washington is trying to close the Tacoma detention center entirely.

FILE - In this Sept. 5, 2020, file photo, police use chemical irritants and crowd control munitions to disperse protesters during a demonstration in Portland, Ore. City officials insist Portland is resilient as they launch a revitalization plan — in the form of citywide cleanups of protest damage, aggressive encampment removals, increased homeless services and police reform — to repair its reputation. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Officers resign en masse from Portland protest response unit

The move to disband came a day after a team member was indicted in an assault case from last summer.

The Everett Post Office is shown with a "now hiring" sign in 2019. (Sue MIsao / Herald file)
Washington unemployment rate dipped to 5.3% in May

Private sector employment increased by 7,000 jobs and government employment increased by 1,300 jobs.

Frank, a homeless man sits in his tent with a river view in Portland, Ore., on Saturday, June 5, 2021. Until a year ago, the city was best known nationally for its ambrosial food scene, craft breweries and “Portlandia” hipsters. Now, months-long protests following the killing of George Floyd, a surge in deadly gun violence, and an increasingly visible homeless population have many questioning whether Oregon’s largest city can recover. (AP Photo/Paula Bronstein)
Portland, scarred by unrest and violence, tries to come back

To outsiders, the Rose City’s reputation has gone from quirky “Portlandia” to violent dystopia.

In this photo taken Sept. 10, 2019, a detainee works in a kitchen area at the GEO Group’s immigration jail in Tacoma, Wash., during a media tour. After nearly four years of litigation and pandemic-related delays, a federal jury on Tuesday, June 15, 2021, began deliberating whether the GEO Group must pay minimum wage to detainees who perform cooking, cleaning and other tasks at the facility – instead of the $1 per day they typically receive. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Jury deciding if immigration detainees must get minimum wage

People being held at the detention center in Tacoma currently earn $1 a day for cooking and cleaning.

Most Read