Officials are warning about the potential for more catastrophe in the months ahead, as drought, heat and climate change leave the landscape ever thirstier.
By FERNANDA SANTOS NY TIMES AUG. 1, 2015
WALLA WALLA, Wash. — Another summer of record-breaking drought and heat has seized the West, setting off costly and destructive wildfires from Southern California, where a single blaze burned more than 30,000 acres of national forest east of Los Angeles, to Montana, where a fast-moving fire in Glacier National Park recently forced tourists to flee hotels, campgrounds and vehicles.
No measurable rain has fallen here in Walla Walla since May. Temperatures have broken decades-old records. And, though known for soaking skies and cool summers, Washington State is well on track to surpass last year’s wildfire season, its busiest on record. Dozens of homes and thousands of acres have burned over the past few months — in the rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula, in suburban communities on the edge of the wild lands, and in this city of wheat farms and vineyards where hundreds of firefighters are still battling a blaze on the western slopes of the Blue Mountains, digging and scraping the earth, building barriers of dirt to shield the dried-out forests from the approaching flames. “Our fire season started a month ahead, our crops matured weeks ahead and the dry weather we usually get in August, we’ve had since May,” said Peter J. Goldmark, Washington’s commissioner of public lands. Walking along the edge of the Blue Creek fire, burning near the Oregon-Washington border, he added, “By heavens, if this isn’t a sign of climate change, then what is climate change going to bring?”
The entire region is under duress. It has been so dry for so long that federal officials have warned about the potential for more catastrophe in the months ahead, as drought and climate change push high temperatures higher, drying already-arid lands.
The conditions vary from one area to the next: an unforgiving drought in California, where a fire captain died Thursday night while battling one of 23 wildfires burning in the northern part of the state; snow that arrived late and melted early in Idaho; extreme temperature swings in the Southwest; and grass that has turned to tinder across the Pacific Northwest. But the West’s stubborn drought seems to be especially devastating the farther north it reaches. In Alaska, 399 fires burned in June. That was nearly double the number seen in the same month in 2004 — considered to have been the state’s worst fire year on record. In the past, the fires mostly burned tundra. This year, though, several have merged and marched toward cities and small fishing villages, destroying, damaging or threatening hundreds of homes. It is all part of an extensive nationwide scorching. About 63,312 wildfires destroyed 3.6 million acres of land across the country last year, at a cost of $1.52 billion to fight the fires. Early projections have placed this year’s cost even higher, at up to $2.1 billion, well beyond the $1.5 billion set aside by the federal Interior and Agriculture Departments, which administer more than 600 million acres of public lands.
The Obama administration has asked Congress to place wildfires in the same category as hurricanes and floods, with a dedicated disaster fund to pay for their suppression. Federal agencies have been forced for years to pay for firefighting with money that had been set aside for preventive programs to minimize the long-term risk of those wildfires, compounding the problem of frequent fires. The Republican leadership in Congress has yet to endorse any of the proposals. “These are emergencies,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told reporters recently, as she urged Congress to act. “They should be treated as such.”
…..Between 2005 and 2014, the average number of fires that burned more than 100,000 acres — known as “megafires” — increased to 9.8 per year, up from fewer than one a year before 1995, according to statistics compiled by the National Interagency Fire Center, a multiagency logistical hub in Boise, Idaho. One reason, ecologists and historians say, is the well-established link between big fires and the steady loss of moisture in forests from higher temperatures brought on by climate change. Even when it rains, as it did in Arizona this spring, there is no guarantee it will be enough. Rain needs to be sustained over long periods to end the drought affecting the West, experts say, and rising temperatures continue to increase the risk from flames….
Almost 5 million acres have burned, and scientists say the blazes are the latest sign of a region transformed
Alaska’s wildfire season of 2015 may be the state’s worst ever
By Chris Mooney July 26 2015 FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Hundreds of wildfires are continually whipping across this state this summer, leaving in their wake millions of acres of charred trees and blackened earth.
At the Fairbanks compound of the state’s Division of Forestry recently, workers were busy washing a mountain of soot-covered fire hoses, which stood in piles roughly six feet high and 100 feet long. About 3,500 smokejumpers, hotshot crews, helicopter teams and other workers have traveled to Alaska this year from across the country and Canada. And they have collectively deployed about 830 miles of hose this year to fight fires. An hour north of the state’s second-biggest city, firefighters were attacking flames stretching across more than 31,000 acres, including an area close to the Trans-Alaska pipeline system, which stretches from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. And that’s just one of about 300 fires at any given time. “People don’t fathom how big Alaska is. You can have a 300,000-acre fire, and nobody knows anything about it, because nothing’s been done about it, because of where it is,” says Tim Mowry, spokesman for the Alaska Division of Forestry. The staggering 2015 Alaska wildfire season may soon be the state’s worst ever, with almost 5 million acres already burned — an area larger than Connecticut. The pace of the burn has moderated in the last week, but scientists say the fires are just the latest indicator of a climatic transformation that is remaking this state — its forests, its coasts, its glaciers, and perhaps most of all, the frozen ground beneath — more than any other in America. Alaska has already warmed by more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the past half-century, much more than the continental United States. The consequences have included an annual loss of 75 billion metric tons of ice from its iconic glaciers — including those covering the slopes of Denali, the highest peak in North America — and the destabilization of permafrost, the frozen ground that underlies 80 percent of the state and whose thaw can undermine buildings, roads and infrastructure…..
Andrew Freeman Mashable Aug 5 2015
Drought and lightning are making for a combustible combination in California. The state is suffering through its fourth straight summer of drought, and this may be known as the summer of smoke. A staggering 10,000 national, state and local firefighters are battling fires that are popping up by the hundreds each week, the majority of which are sparked by lightning strikes from daily thunderstorms erupting over mountainous terrain, which drop little rain and cause a lot of trouble. To put the number of firefighters into perspective, that is about the number of troops the U.S. has in Afghanistan.
So far, one firefighter has died fighting California’s blazes. As of Tuesday morning, 22 large uncontained fires were still burning across the state, with the biggest and most destructive one being the Rocky Fire located in Lake County, California, about 100 miles northeast of San Francisco. The Rocky fire grew in size to more than 101 square mile, or about 65,000 acres, on Tuesday, taking advantage of abundant vegetation that had not burned in years. The fire was just 12% contained as of Tuesday morning, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire). “Tinder dry conditions from the drought continue to allow wildfires to burn at an explosive rate,” CalFire said in an August 4 fire summary. So far this year, California has seen a whopping 5,916 wildfires, which have charred 148,782 acres. CalFire says it has responded to more than 4,200 of these fires, which is about 1,500 more than the average for the year so far. With daily thunderstorms popping up across California and the West more broadly, lightning strikes are igniting more blazes that can quickly grow amid gusty winds and tinderbox dry conditions on the ground….
A fire truck moves position as flames from the Rocky fire approach near Clearlake, California, USA, 02 August 2015. EPA/NOAH BERGER
US Forest Service says 2/3 of its budget could go to fighting wildfires by 2025
By Chris Mooney August 5 2015 Washington Post
As 14 large fires rage across California, the U.S. Forest Service is sounding the alarm about the exploding cost of protecting people and property from a growing wildfire threat. In a new report released Wednesday, the agency says that while it spent 16 percent of its total budget on preparing for and fighting fires in 1995, it will spend more than half its budget this year on the same task — and a projected 67 percent or more by 2025 under current funding arrangements. By ten years from now, the agency’s expenditures for fighting wildfires as they flare up — dubbed fire suppression — are projected to increase from just under $1.1 billion in 2014 to nearly $1.8 billion. And that’s just one of a number of fire related costs; there is also an annual, fixed fire “preparedness” budget that exceeds $1 billion each year. The Forest Service report says the agency’s very mission is “threatened” by this trend of increased fires, which is having a “debilitating impact” on other Forest Service responsibilities due to a phenomenon where funds for other priorities get shifted towards immediate wildfire emergencies. “With a warming climate, fire seasons are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970,” the document reads. “The U.S. burns twice as many acres as three decades ago and Forest Service scientists believe the acreage burned may double again by mid-century.” The fact that people are building more structures in harm’s way only compounds the problem, the agency adds. “I think we’re at the tipping point, where over half of the Forest Service budget is used for fire,” said Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack, whose department includes the service. Vilsack said that to get a handle on the problem, extremely large or intense fires — which are only 1 to 2 percent of the total, but chew up 30 percent of firefighting costs — should be treated as natural disasters, much like hurricanes and floods are, and funded accordingly. Vilsack’s favored approach for such funding involves a mechanism called a “budget cap adjustment,” which can allow for added spending on disasters despite caps on total spending under 2011 budget legislation. “Unless you treat those massive fires as the emergencies that they are and fund them as such, you’re never going to get ahead of this,” Vilsack said. “You’re always going to be constantly behind, and getting further and further behind.”….
John Ross Ferrara / August 2, 2015
Today’s Calfire Fire Situation Report shows towers of smoke billowing from the 47,000-acre Rocky Fire near Clearlake. Calfire Chief of Public Information Daniel Berlant said in today’s report that drought conditions caused the fire to spread at an unprecedented rate yesterday afternoon. “The fire burned at an explosive rate,” Berlant said. “Within a five hour period, it consumed 20,000 acres. That’s a historic, unprecedented amount of acreage burned in such a short amount of time.” The fire has spread throughout Lake, Yolo and Colusa Counties. The blaze has destroyed 24 homes and 26 outbuildings so far. Firefighters are focusing their efforts on preventing the fire from jumping U.S. Highways 16 and 20. The fire is 5 percent contained….
Friday, August 7, 2015 | Sacramento, CA | Permalink
6:20 a.m. – Cal Fire will begin allowing some of the thousands of Rocky Fire evacuees to return to their homes this morning.
Battalion chief Rick Frawley says the Spring Valley area is expected to be reopened at 10 a.m. “This is one of the larger areas that was under a mandatory evacuation order going back over the last 48-72 hours.” More than 13,000 people have been affected by evacuation orders since the start of the fire. More than 5,000 structures were threatened. But crews continue to make progress. Frawley says the fire is 45 percent contained and he expects that number to reach more than 50 percent today thanks to humid weather. “But Mother Nature can be fickle. We want to make sure that we have a strategy that can adapt to any changes in weather patterns.” He says Cal Fire expects to have the blaze fully contained within a week.
Photo: NASA Earth Observatory, Courtesy A look at the Rocky Fire taken from space, courtesy of the NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.
By Hamed Aleaziz Updated 1:39 pm, Wednesday, August 5, 2015
New pictures captured by a NASA satellite camera shows just how large the Rocky Fire, which has been called insane and unlike anything seen before by firefighters, really is. More than 3,400 firefighters are battling the enormous blaze, which has grown to more than 68,000 acres in the past week in Lake, Yolo, and Colusa counties, caused thousands of residents to evacuate and destroyed 39 homes 52 other buildings. An Operations Land Imager on a Landsat 8 satellite captured the images on Monday and NASA released them on Wednesday