U.S. Alert Level Raised Amid Calif., Utah Blazes

A firefighter monitors a fire i i

A firefighter monitors a fire in the suburb of Glendale on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Mark Ralston/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Ralston/Getty Images
A firefighter monitors a fire

A firefighter monitors a fire in the suburb of Glendale on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Mark Ralston/Getty Images

U.S. Forest Service workers hike down a hill Monday while fighting a fire in Tujunga, Calif. As wildfires have spread in six states, the nation's wildfire response system has moved into a higher level of alert and preparedness. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images hide caption

Photo Gallery: California Wildfires
itoggle caption Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

With thousands of homes threatened in six states, the nation's wildfire response system has kicked into a higher level of alert and preparedness.

Monday, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, raised the National Preparedness Level to three. Five is the highest level, and it indicates extreme strain on the nation's wildfire resources.

The higher preparedness level was prompted specifically by wildfires threatening homes in California and Utah, according to NIFC. The number of firefighters battling the Mill Flat fire near New Harmony, Utah, nearly doubled to 647 Monday. More helicopters and fire engines were also devoted to the blaze, which has the owners of more than 600 homes and businesses ready to evacuate on short notice.

Close to 10,000 firefighters and support crews are deployed in at least eight states, along with 878 fire engines, 80 helicopters and 19 air tankers. In extreme fire years, more than 20,000 people are at work fighting fires, and military and foreign firefighters are recruited. That's in addition to a significant number of state and local firefighters and equipment deployed in California by state fire officials there.

Los Angeles County Fire Department, Google Maps

The leap to Preparedness Level 3 is noteworthy because this has been a relatively mild wildfire season outside Alaska. The number of wildfires and total acreage burned is close to the 10-year average. But, take Alaska out of the mix, and it's below average in the lower 48 states, even with the dramatic flare-ups in California and Utah this past week.

August, for example, is often the worst month for wildfires. Between 2000 and 2008, the demand for firefighters and equipment in August was so great, the preparedness level was three or higher on all but two days, according to Randy Eardley, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Land Management. That's just two days in nine Augusts. But in 2009, Eardley says, there were 10 August days at Level 2.

"One thing we didn't have this year," Eardley explains, "is a lot of ignitions because of a lack of dry lightning."

In parts of the West, summer monsoon thunderstorms trigger lightning but little or no rain. That's a major source of wildfires, but fewer storms hit the region this summer, according to Rick Ochoa, a fire weather meteorologist at NIFC.

"There hasn't been that steady monsoon we typically see," Ochoa says.

Some mountain regions did get thunderstorms but were still relatively moist from a wet spring, Ochoa adds, and rain accompanied lightning, so the normal spate of summer fires was avoided.

Eardley also credits fewer human-caused ignitions, which he hopes is because of public awareness efforts. And he suggests that a new federal firefighting policy has helped limit the demand on firefighters and equipment.

The policy applies to officially designated wilderness areas and other remote places. "We have not approached those fires as aggressively," Eardley says. "We've kind of stepped back and looked at the people we were putting in harm's way, the money that we were putting into [wildfires], and really what we were accomplishing in aggressively suppressing all of those fires all of the time."

That softer approach is blamed for the threat to homes posed by the Mill Flat fire in Utah. The blaze began July 25 with a lightning strike in the Pine Valley Wilderness Area and was allowed to burn. This past weekend, gusting winds suddenly doubled the burning acreage and pushed the blaze toward New Harmony. Three homes were destroyed, and hundreds of people were forced to evacuate. Angry residents and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert criticized the hands-off approach.

"Any time you're dealing with Mother Nature and something like fire, it's always a risky policy," Eardley responds. But he adds that the Mill Flat fire will be investigated, and the results of that probe "may alter what we do next time."

The wildfire season is just getting under way in Southern California, but it's now winding down in the rest of the West. September brings longer nights with cooler temperatures and higher humidity, which make flames easier to manage. That makes Eardley confident about the ability to respond to new wildfires, even though so many firefighters are deployed now.

"We're looking in pretty good shape nationwide," Eardley says. "We have a lot of capability to handle anything that comes up."

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