Firefighters brace for severe wildfires in drought-gripped U.S. West

11 June 2021

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USA – From igniting controlled burns to removing vegetation, U.S. firefighters are undergoing massive preparations for a wildfire year they expect could be even worse than last year’s record-breaking season.

Fires have arrived early this year, scorching the West as it grapples with the worst drought in the recorded history of the U.S. Drought Monitor. Hot and dry early-season temperatures driven by climate change, along with a high supply of dry brush, have primed states for more severe and frequent blazes each year.

In Arizona, firefighters are already battling two massive blazes fueled by hot temperatures and gusty wind. Conditions are so dry that officials said firefighters combating the blaze accidently ignited new fires sparked by their equipment.

California, which is experiencing drought and depleted water reservoirs, also had an early start to its season. A fire in May forced the evacuation of hundreds of people in western Los Angeles. Five of the six largest fires in the state’s history happened last year, burning more than 4 million acres.

“Fire season has become extended in many parts of the country to what now encompasses an entire fire year,” said Bill Avey, national fire and aviation director of the USDA Forest Service.

“Managing a year-long season is increasingly challenging for the USDA and the entire wildland fire management community,” Avey said.

Smoke plumes rise from a blaze as a wildfire rages on in Arizona, U.S., June 7, 2021, in this image obtained from social media.

Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management | Reuters

With fire season getting longer, states are faced with the mounting challenge of adequately preparing and responding to a year-after-year surge in disasters fueled by climate change.

California this year will have its largest firefighting force ever and has already finished dozens of fuel reduction projects like controlled burns. The state’s largest utility, PG&E, has also said it could shut off power more frequently this year to curb fire risk in Northern California.

And earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom called for a record $2 billion wildfire preparedness budget and an expansion of the fleet of aircraft to fight the fires.

Since the start of 2021, California has responded to more than 2,875 wildfires that burned more than 16,800 acres, according to Alisha Herring, a communications representative for Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency.

“This is a significant increase in both fires and acres compared to 2020,” Herring said.

A sign is posted next to an empty field on May 27, 2021 in Chowchilla, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

This year, the Forest Service has 15,000 firefighters and personnel prepared to put out fires, as well as up to 34 air tankers, more than 200 helicopters and 900 engines for what they fear will be an unprecedented season, Avey said.

Last month, President Joe Biden said that Federal Emergency Management Agency will double the funding available to help cities and states prepare for climate disasters like fires and hurricanes, from $500 million in 2020 to $1 billion this year.

But the increase in FEMA funding was less than what some disaster mitigation experts argue is needed to prepare for weather events. Last year, the U.S. had 22 disasters that totaled more than $1 billion each in record losses, according to the White House.

“Now is the time to get ready for the busiest time of the year for disasters in America,” the president said following a briefing at FEMA headquarters.

Hilary Franz, Washington state’s commissioner of public lands, said the state is preparing for an especially severe fire season by securing additional air resources through contracts and regional and national agreements.

Nearly 85% of wildfires result from human activity, including unattended debris fires, cigarettes, power tools and arson. The danger is heightened as more people build in fire-prone wildland areas. Experts have urged federal officials to better manage forests and for cities or states to have building codes that require fire-resistant materials for homebuilding.

“The vast majority of wildfires are caused by human activity,” Franz said. “The more that people practice fire safety and avoid starting outdoor fires, the better our chances of avoiding a devastating wildfire season.”

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