With the official start of summer just days away, wildfire season is off to a hot start across the West. As the Associated Press reports, there are currently blazes in at least four states — Alaska, Arizona, California, and Washington — and over 1,000 people have been evacuated in total. According to the U.S. Forest Service there are currently 17 large fires burning.
A fire in the mountains east of Los Angeles spread quickly on Thursday as high winds and dry conditions propelled it to over 10,000 acres in size, the largest wildfire this year in California’s national forests. According to CAL FIRE, as of June 13, the state had experienced 2,217 fires so far this year — nearly 700 above the five-year average of 1,461 — however the overall acreage burned is significantly below the average.
As fire season picks up, efforts by lawmakers representing these states to find an adequate funding mechanism for both prevention and response are gaining stream. On Thursday, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley helped usher a provision to improve wildfire disaster response through the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee. The language would end what Merkley refers to as “fire borrowing,” in which money used for fighting wildfires comes out of the same fund as money used for fire prevention — thus setting back prevention efforts. The new federal financing model would make fighting wildfires more like other natural disasters, such as floods, with their own emergency fund.
“When a huge hurricane or a tornado strikes, we fund the response and recovery as exactly what it is — a natural disaster,” said Merkley in a statement. “But despite the fact that the largest wildfires are natural disasters, we’ve forced agencies to steal funding from other critical programs — including wildfire prevention — to cover the cost of fighting them.”
The committee approved financing based on the 10-year average costs. Funding beyond that would come from FEMA’s emergency disaster fund. Oregon’s 10-year average is $29 million, however costs in recent years have exceeded $100 million. According to Merkley, the 2014 fire season cost Oregon $280 million and charred 847,000 acres. In 2014, the Northwest endured its second-worst fire season on record, with fires burning some 1.2 million acres and costing more than $446 million to extinguish.
As drought and heat become more intense across the West due to the impacts of climate change, wildfire seasons are increasing in length. The U.S. Forest Service projects that a 2.88° Fahrenheit increase in summer temperatures could double the amount of land burned by wildfires in Western states.
With Alaska caught up in a record-breaking heat wave and much of the Southwest blanketed in the year’s first extremely high temperatures, fire fighters must deal with more than just putting out fires — they also must protect themselves from heat exhaustion and other dangers of the job.
With some 500 firefighters alone tasked with containing the Lake fire in California and 300 firefighters from across the U.S. and Canada headed to Alaska to help extinguish the blazes, safety can become a major issue. In 2013, 19 firefighters were killed at once while fighting back an especially unpredictable inferno in central Arizona.