DENVER – Summer forest fires are blazing their way across the forests and grasslands of the American West, with thousands of acres aflame and more fires expected as days get hotter and drier. “It’s summertime,” said Ed Nesselroad, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman, noting that low humidity, high temperatures and summer winds have fanned the flames in a number of western states in recent weeks.
As of late Thursday, fires raged across some 19,000 acres (7,700 hectares) of forests and grassland around the western United States. But the total amount of acreage on fire can rise and fall dramatically as firefighters extinguish one blaze only to be confronted with another.
In southern California, site of some of the nation’s most devastating wildfires, fire fighters were gaining control Thursday of three large blazes that had charred a total of more than 2,800 acres (1,120 hectares), while rain in western Colorado was helping contain a 9,000-acre (3,600-hectare) blaze there.
This week marked the fifth anniversary of the Storm King Mountain fire in western Colorado, the worst single U.S. wildfire disaster in 40 years. Fourteen firefighters perished.
Last year was relatively quiet, with a cool, damp summer keeping fires at bay. But fire control officers say this year’s season could mark a return to tinderbox conditions with a hot summer already underway.
“We’re at the beginning of the western fire season,” said Mike Apicello of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
To date, some 1.6 million acres (640,000 hectares) have burned nationwide this fire season, compared with the 10-year-average of 1.16 million acres (460,000 hectares), Apicello said.
Fires raged in 1990, 1991, 1994 and 1996, but were less active in 1995, 1997 and last year.
Six large fires are burning in California, Idaho and Oregon, affecting 6,726 acres (2,722 hectares) and 217 wildland fires are burning nearly 12,000 acres (4,800 hectares). But there are also hundreds of small fires burning, the information agency said.
A 61,000-acre (24,400-hectare) grassland fire was contained in Utah this week.
Karen Terrill, an information officer at the California Department of Forestry, said that by early July the state was well up on the average number of wildfires.
“So far this year we’ve had 3,085 wildfires in California. That is up 700 fires over what we would normally expect to have by this time,” Terrill said.
She noted, however, that the total acreage burned was just 19,050 acres (7,700 hectares), more than 10,000 acres (4,000 hectares) below the five year average. She attributed this to rapid firefighting response.
“This tells you we have a lot more (fire) starts out there, and 90 percent of our fires are started by people,” Terrill said. “But we we are also having successful firefighting, by and large. Some of that is contributed to skill, some … to luck.”
Total fires in the United States stand at 50,052, compared with the 10-year-average of 42,163.
In the San Diego area, about 150 firefighters battled a 155-acre (62-hectare) brush fire in a rugged area on the Otay Mountain this week.
The fire, believed to have been started by a camp fire, broke out on Tuesday morning and firefighters used bulldozers and other heavy equipment to try to douse it.
One man was injured – a firefighter who cut his leg while working with a chainsaw.
While the fires in heavily populated California are often started by people, others in the West were sparked by lightning, like two that began last week east of Moab, Utah and west of Grand Junction, Colo., a distance of less than 100 miles (160 km). The two fires became virtually one.