Boise, Idaho, USA — Wildfires scorched an area four times the size of Yellowstone National Park and destroyed more than 5,200 buildings in 2007, one of the nation’s worst fire seasons despite a record amount of retardant dropped by aircraft.
The Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center reported nearly 14,000 square miles burned and the federal government spent more than $1.8 billion fighting wildfires, making it the second costliest season on record.
Even though fire managers used 22.4 million gallons of fire retardant — nearly triple the 10-year average — the area burned in 2007 trails only 2006 when fire consumed 15,500 square miles.
The number of buildings burned in 2007 ranks second since current counting methods began in 1999, trailing the 5,700 buildings destroyed in 2003, the fire center reported.
It was also the fourth consecutive year that flames torched more than 12,500 square miles, an amount not previously recorded until 2004, with records going back to 1960.
“The world we’re dealing with in fire suppression is changing,” said Lyle Carlile, chair of the fire center’s National Multiagency Coordinating Group and one of seven people who decide where to position U.S. wildfire fighting resources during the fire season. “We just can’t continue to do business the same way. We don’t have enough firefighters to draw from to handle the situations we’re faced with.”
Fire managers said a lengthening drought, hotter temperatures across much of the U.S., and an increased number of homes built in fire-prone wildland areas contributed to the severity of the wildfire season.
Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the center, said the last two years represent back-to-back fire seasons so fierce managers have been forced to change strategy.
“Our fire managers knew they couldn’t do things the old way — the frontal or flank attacks were just too dangerous,” she said. “In some places they had to steer the fire to natural breaks where they could fight it efficiently and not get anybody hurt or killed.”
Seven wildland firefighters died in 2007 as a result of activities related to wildfires, one on a fireline, said Davis. In 2006, 24 firefighters died, 12 on firelines.
About 15,000 wildland firefighters deployed during the season, and the U.S. asked for and received help from Canada with five hand crews of 20 firefighters each. The fire center in Boise remained on its highest alert level from mid-July to the end of August.
In December, the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration’s National Climatic Data Center released preliminary data that predicted the annual average temperature for 2007 across the contiguous United States at near 54.3 degrees Fahrenheit — which would make the year the eighth warmest since records were first kept in 1895.
Davis said extended drought also contributed to the 2007 wildfire season.
“The fire season started very early with the large, unusual fires in the East, in Georgia,” said Davis. “As it moved to the Western U.S., almost every section of the country issued fire behavior alerts.”
Alerts warn firefighters about elevated danger based on weather and potential fuel, including how susceptible trees, brush and grasslands are to fire based on how dry conditions have become. Carlile said years of fire suppression in some areas have made those areas more difficult to protect.
“We cannot keep fires out of these fire-dependent ecosystems,” he said. “That is just not sustainable. Fuels are going to build up and it’s just going to escalate.”
Nearly 80,000 wildfires started in 2007, the fire center reported, about 85 percent the result of human activity and the rest lightning strikes. Initial attacks by a web of firefighters who react quickly put out all but about 2 percent of those wildfires, but some that got away became memorable:
In Georgia and Florida, the season started in April with wildfires that lasted several months and burned more than 900 square miles, the Southeast’s biggest wildfire since 1898, according to the fire center.
At about 550 square miles, the Milford Flat fire in western Utah was the largest wildfire in that state’s history. Five people died, including a California couple riding a motorcycle when smoke swept Interstate 15 on July 7.
Idaho had the most area burned in the U.S. in 2007 with 3,100 square miles. That included the 78-square mile Castle Rock fire in August that forced the evacuation of more than 2,000 homes in the resort area of Ketchum in central Idaho and caused Sun Valley Resort to run its snowmaking equipment in a successful bid to protect a $12 million ski lodge atop Bald Mountain.
The Murphy complex of fires, started by lightning in late July, burned an area on the Idaho-Nevada border larger than Rhode Island. The fire blackened grassland used by cattle, and wildlife habitat that supports sensitive species such as sage grouse.
The Angora fire in June burned 3,100 acres and destroyed 254 homes on the west side of Lake Tahoe in California.
The Zaca fire that started on July 4 in southern California burned some four months and 375 square miles to become the second-largest wildfire in that state’s history, threatening ranches and vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley.
The Nov. 24 Malibu fire in southern California, fanned by Santa Ana winds, put the bookend to the season, destroying more than 50 homes, 35 other structures and burning about 5,000 acres. The total cost of the human-caused fire is estimated at $100 million, and six firefighters were injured.
Carlile said wildfires that threaten homes get top priority because lives and buildings are at risk. But he also said homes built in areas prone to wildfire use fire fighting resources that might otherwise be sent elsewhere.
“The expansion of the wildland-urban interface continues to challenge us,” he said. “Everybody wants to live out next to the forest. That expansion becomes high value areas we have to protect.”
Smokejumpers, who parachute out of airplanes, have seen their roles change in recent years from jumping into remote areas to jumping into more easily accessible areas where initial attack is considered a key to stopping fires before they get big, said Eric Reynolds, chief of the Bureau of Land Management smokejumpers in Boise.
“Because of the experience, our crews are in demand more than ever on those emerging fires,” he said.
The Boise base is one nine smokejumping bases in the U.S., and Reynolds said the 83 smokejumpers in Boise combined to go on 926 fire jumps in 2007.