Back in June, the federal government was very worried that a bad wildfire season might be coming, exacerbated by drought throughout much of the west.
And now it has come to pass: On Thursday, the so-called National Preparedness Level for wildfires was elevated to 5, the highest there is, meaning that “geographic areas are experiencing major incidents which have the potential to exhaust all agency fire resources.” Indeed, large fires are now burning in 11 states, including 12 in Oregon and 14 in California.
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“Given the continuing hot and dry weather and the increase in fire activity in the western US, the decision to move to Preparedness Level 5 depicts the complexity that fire managers are encountering to assure that adequate firefighting resources are available for protection of life, property and our nation’s natural resources,” says the National Interagency Fire Center.
Overall, 6,471,748 acres have burned across the U.S. so far in 2015, well ahead of the 10 year average for this time of year. Last week the U.S. Forest Service released a new report saying that the costs of fighting wildfires is spiking and consuming an ever larger percentage of the agency’s budget — projected to be over 50 percent of it this year.
The national wildfire preparedness level has not been this high since August of 2013, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. It stayed at that level for seven days back then. It has now been raised to the highest level five separate times in the last decade.
“A significant amount of initial and extended attack and large fire activity has occurred over the past several days as a result of lightning storms that have intensified local and geographic response,” said Aitor Bidaburu, chair of the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group, in a press statement.
At preparedness level 5, the nation can request additional firefighting aid from the military or international partners, like Canada.
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In California, currently the busiest wildfire state, crews had managed to achieve 52 percent containment of the dangerous Jerusalem Fire, a 24,555 acre inferno that had doubled in size, from 6,000 acres to 12,000 acres burned, from Monday to Tuesday.
By far the most dramatic fire currently burning in the U.S., however, has to be the Soda Fire southwest of Boise, Idaho, a true mega-fire which has consumed a staggering 218,000 acres so far, and is only 11 percent contained. And it has done all of this just since Monday when it started, possibly from a lightning strike.
Flames from a wildfire in Owyhee County, Idaho, can be seen from Boise, Idaho, Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015. The wildfire in southwestern Idaho fanned by shifting winds and numerous storm cells grew rapidly over a 24-hour span Wednesday, causing dozens of homes to fall under an evacuation notice and threatening valuable habitat for the sage grouse. (Kyle Green/Idaho Statesman via AP)
“For the past two days, the fire has displayed extreme fire behavior that has moved the fire a distance of over 40 miles long and ten miles wide,” notes the latest situation report on the fire.
It adds, “Over the course of the past several days, this fire has made a tragic impact to the local ranching community.” “Tens of thousands of acres of grazing land” have reportedly been destroyed, according to the Capital Press, and the area is also key habitat for sage grouse.
The 2015 wildfire season still has a long way to go, with above normal activity expected across much of Alaska, California, and the Pacific Northwest in August, and persisting in the Pacific Northwest through September.