By Cat Lazaroff WASHINGTON, DC – More than 22,000 firefighters are now battling wildland blazes across the western U.S., and a new fire forecast released today does not offer much hope for relief in coming weeks. The National Interagency Fire Center declared a Level 5 alert Wednesday – the highest alert level possible – and began talks with several branches of the military to help control the fires that now threaten homes and businesses in dozens of communities. Wildfires have burned more than 2.5 million acres across the United States this year. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) estimates that at least 2,000 homes are threatened in Oregon and Washington states alone, where firefighters are battling 17 separate blazes. With a dry cold front expected to bring high winds and lightning today to western Montana and Idaho, and the eastern portions of Oregon and Washington, the situation is likely to get worse. “Fire activity in the Northwest is a critical situation and continues to be our main priority,” an NIFC spokesperson said today. Washington state is currently the hardest hit. Four new large fires sprang up in Washington state overnight, and winds blew others out of control. The Icicle Creek Valley in central Washington is now under a mandatory evacuation, while vacationers in popular tourist destinations, including Lake Chelan and Leavenworth, are also being forced to leave. At least 17 hikers and backpackers in Washington were airlifted to safety this week after flames cut off their routes to safety. An aircraft delivers flame retardant chemicals to a wildfire In Oregon, fires in Mount Hood National Forest and along Highway 395 at Camas Creek have forced mandatory evacuations. Some residents are voluntarily leaving the small towns of Dale, Monument and Ukiah as other large fires creep ever closer. Near Ashland in the southern portion of the state, fire is threatening stands of old growth forest that shelter threatened northern spotted owls. More than half a million acres across 10 states are in flames, and the nation’s fire fighting resources are stretched to their limits. To make matters worse, many of the firefighters now on the ground are seasonal workers – college students, for the most part, who will be returning to classes in just a few weeks. More firefighters have been called in to help, from as far away as New Hampshire, but those units could soon be needed at home – a new NIFC fire forecast released today predicts high fire danger across New England this fall. Firefighters are battling heat, drought and fire across the western United States The U.S. Air Force and the National Guard are providing some help. On Thursday, the Pentagon announced that it has mobilized four airborne firefighting systems, two from the Air Force Reserve in Colorado and two from the Air National Guard in North Carolina. The units will join air wings from the California and Wyoming National Guards, sent to help fight western fires earlier in the week. “The National Guard is also providing about 250 Guard members from eight different states to assist firefighters in their efforts,” said Rear Admiral Craig Quigley in a Pentagon briefing on Tuesday. All of the military personnel will require some specialized training in dropping fire retardants and fighting fires on the ground. By early next week, some of these teams will be fighting fires – but only the smaller fires, which do not require as much experience to combat. State and federal officials are taking as many precautions as they can, banning campfires and keeping campers out of the driest areas. Many of the firefighters now battling western blazes are college students who have to head back to classes soon In Oregon, timber giant Willamette Industries has closed most of its timberlands to the public due to the fire danger. Willamette Industries is Oregon’s largest private forest landowner, holding 610,000 acres across the state. “The prudent thing to do is to not take further risks with our forest resources,” said Jim James, general manager of western timberlands for Willamette Industries. “We ask the public for cooperation during this difficult fire season. These closures will be in effect until the weather conditions reduce fire danger.” Already this year, millions of federal dollars have been spent or allocated to pay for firefighting costs in western. The nonprofit group Taxpayers for Common Sense says the high costs show that the federal government’s approach to dealing with wildfires is “seriously flawed.” “Putting thousands of firefighters on the frontlines to battle western wildfires makes for dramatic headlines, but it isn’t always necessary,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer, a forest expert at Taxpayers for Common Sense. “The federal government’s failure to plan for wildfires wastes tax dollars and needlessly risks the lives of many brave men and women.” Lightning strikes, blamed for starting many of the fires now burning in the western U.S., are expected to spark even more blazes this weekend as a dry cold front crosses the region As of August 9, the Forest Service had already spent $261 million for fire suppression efforts this year, even though only 117,757 acres had burned. That works out to over $2,216 spent per acre burned – more than double the previous record of $976 per acre set in 1999. “The federal government seems to prefer to write huge checks after the fact, rather than coming up with a solid game plan to deal with the wildfire issue,” continued Oppenheimer. “Congress and the Forest Service are flying blind here, and unfortunately no one seems interested in acting on the critical reforms needed to fix the problem.” Oppenheimer authored last year’s analysis of the 2000 wildfire season, “From the Ashes: Reducing the Rising Costs and Harmful Effects of Western Wildfires.” Last year, the United States spent an estimated $1.3 billion fighting 122,827 wildland fires across the nation, according to the NIFC. Yet 8,422,237 acres till burned in 2000, well above the 10 year average of 3,786,411 acres. National Guard troops and other military units have been called in to help battle fires in Oregon and Washington With 55,339 fires having already burned 2,579,190 acres this year, 2001 could well beat last year’s numbers. Ongoing drought conditions combined with record high temperatures in the Pacific Northwest, Great Lake states and New England mean a very active fire season throughout the fall, the NIFC predicts. “The dry winter and multiple year drought conditions has left much of the U.S. at risk to wildland fire,” the agency reported this week. Fire conditions are now listed as “critical” in northern Nevada, northern California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.