Wildfire Season So Far: Tragic, Destructive And Below Average
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Audie Cornish.
So far, the wildfire season has been tragic and destructive and it's about to intensify, according to a new forecast. NPR's Howard Berkes is keeping track of fires that have developed to date and talking with forecasters about what is yet to come.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: It certainly seems like wildfire Armageddon out there.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORTS)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Nearly a thousand homes in two communities north of Los Angeles have been evacuated as a wind whipped wildfire burns more than 40 square miles in the Angeles National Forest.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The number of homes destroyed by Colorado's Black Forest fire has more than tripled.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Nineteen firefighters were killed while battling a massive fire in Arizona. This is the deadliest night for U.S. firefighters in 80 years.
BERKES: But as dramatic as it is, this wildfire season hasn't really kicked into high gear yet. Randy Eardley is a spokesman at the National Interagency Fire Center.
RANDY EARDLEY: With the exception of those scattered ones, yes, we have seen overall less fire activity so far this year.
BERKES: It's about 40 percent below average for this time of year, even with 1.6 million acres scorched and 23,000 wildfires. Ed Delgado is a fire meteorologist for the Federal Bureau of Land Management and he says the Southeast didn't have a big spring fire season. And out West...
ED DELGADO: In the northwest, they've had cooler and wetter weather coming into the summer months, so their green period has been prolonged. And so, they're not getting fire as early as they normally would.
BERKES: But a big shift is underway, according to Delgado's new forecast. Summer monsoon humidity and rain is beginning in the fire-weary Southwest, while excessive heat and persistent drought will take its toll elsewhere.
DELGADO: I think we'll see fire activity in the far Southwest starting to wane. And we'll see fires beginning to increase across the Northwest from Northern California through Oregon, parts of Washington, Idaho and Montana. We'll have fire in other parts of the country, but those areas are where we expect fires to be more significant than we normally see. In other words, larger more prolonged fires than we typically would see this time of year.
BERKES: In the worst years, 15 to 20,000 firefighters and support crews are working all at once. The busiest day this season had 7,000 people deployed. Sequester budget cuts have cost the fire force 500 full-time firefighting jobs. Eardley says fire managers will make do.
EARDLEY: While I'm not going to say that those fewer firefighters on the payroll is not going to be felt, we'll just to have to manage what we have a little bit differently.
BERKES: Which means calling in contractors and the reserves - firefighters who are recently retired but still certified. More than 8,000 retirees were deployed last year. Given the forecast, it appears they'll be needed again.
Howard Berkes, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.