Western United States Braces for More Wildfires

More than 600,000 acres of land are on fire in the western United States. And as the summer reaches its hottest, driest weeks, wildfire officials have moved to their highest stage of alert. Currently, all available fire crews are fighting active blazes. Residents are bracing themselves for a smoky August, even in places where fires haven't yet been sparked.

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Large wildfires are burning on more than 600,000 acres in 14 Southern, Western, and Midwestern states, and that's prompted officials to move to their highest level of alert. All available fire crews have been deployed and so far that's been enough. But tinder-dry conditions across much of the West have states bracing for a potentially explosive August and September.

From Montana, Kathy Witkowsky reports.

KATHY WITKOWSKY reporting:

It's early evening in the Bitterroot Valley, and the sun's rays mingle with plumes of smoke rising from the mountains as firefighters load up their trucks before heading out for the overnight shift. Along with their gear, firefighter Steve Manzanara(ph) says they bring plenty of ice, plenty of food and lots and lots of liquid.

Mr. STEVE MANZANARA (Firefighter): I've got water, some Gatorade. It looks like we've got some tea. You'll end up going down if you don't stay hydrated.

WITKOWSKY: Manzanara is one of nearly 500 firefighters assigned to this, the Gas Creek Fire, which is burning in steep terrain within view of numerous homes. But fire information officer Mike Cole says what's really needed are more helicopters and more experienced fire crews.

Mr. MIKE COLE (Fire Information Officer): With the increased temperatures that we are expecting in August, which normally come, this is going to be a busy year. We just don't have the crews and resources available, like air support, that we normally would have going in to a fire season in the northern Rockies.

WITKOWSKY: That's because there are so many big blazes, more than 50 at last count, that all available crews have been called up. Much of the activity is in northern California, Nevada, Oregon and Montana, but some Southern and Midwestern states are affected, too. Rose Davis is a spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Ms. ROSE DAVIS (National Interagency Fire Center): We've got large fires in several areas and a lot of demand for resources. We do have many of our crews and helicopters and teams tied up, but we are getting them released and getting them moved around. So we're holding our own at this point.

WITKOWSKY: Cooler temperatures and, in some areas, rain have given fire-fighting efforts a boost. But Davis says that might only be a temporary reprieve.

Ms. DAVIS: The potential for continued fires throughout the Pacific Northwest, the Great Basin and up into the northern Rockies is very high for the next month. We have a lot of dry fuels, we have continuing weather patterns bringing us lightning, so we definitely have those concerns.

WITKOWSKY: If necessary, fire officials may be able to get extra help from the military. National guardsmen have already started flying air support in California, Oregon and Montana. Fire officials have also been in touch with their counterparts in other countries in case they need additional trained crews.

But even if it doesn't come to that, there's little rest in sight for U.S. firefighters like those here at Montana's Gas Creek fire camp. Says fire information officer Mike Cole, once this fire is subdued, they'll move on to the next assignment.

Mr. COLE: Well, we expect this is going to be a long season. It's already been long. It starts in the Southwest and it moves north, and one thing we have in the back of our mind, too, is whether or not we're going to have a hurricane season that we're going to have to support this year, also.

WITKOWSKY: And that's not exactly the sort of moisture anyone is hoping for.

For NPR News, I'm Kathy Witkowsky in Missoula, Montana.

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