No End in Sight for Western Fire Season

The western wildfire season usually begins to slow down after Labor Day. But not this year. Experts say a combination of dry weather, and other factors, has firefighting resources stretched thin for the immediate future.

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Labor Day usually means the start of the end of the Western wildfire season, but not this year. Fires in the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest show little sign of the usual September slow-down, and firefighting resources nationwide have been stretched thin.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle.

MARTIN KASTE: Of the large fires moving through the Pacific Northwest since mid summer, none is as big as the so-called Tripod Complex in the piney forest of central Washington state up by Canada. Fire incident officer Randy Shepard(ph) says the blaze has covered 161,000 acres since July.

Mr. RANDY SHEPARD (Fire Incident Officer, Washington): There were some very large smoke columns that looked like huge cumulus clouds that develop over the fires. And the northern tip of this fire has expanded probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 8,000 acres in the last 24 to 36 hours.

KASTE: Things are still this combustible this late in the year because of a combination of dry weather and some other factors, such as the growing number of trees killed off by a plague of bark beetles.

Peter Leschak is an author who's written extensively about his summers fighting wildfires. He says he and his colleagues around the country are about ready for this fire season to end.

Mr. PETER LESCHAK (Firefighter; Author): Well, we are now in, you know, five months straight.

KASTE: Leschak spends most summers traveling around the West helping out where he's needed. But this year the fire zone has been so big he's been kept busy all season in his home base in northern Minnesota, a region that usually doesn't have much in the way of summer forest fires. Firefighters are in short supply all across the national system.

Mr. LESCHAK: Most geographic areas of the country involved with fire are having some difficulty obtaining all of the resources they want or need. Essentially, it's as - you know, it's as ugly as it gets.

KASTE: The National Interagency Fire Center has imported extra help from Canada, Australia and New Zealand, about 90 specialists who can help out with mid level management of helicopter crews and other technical tasks on big fires. Earlier this summer, two separate helicopter accidents killed six people while they were fighting wildfires. Rose Davis is a spokeswoman for the federal wildfire effort.

Ms. ROSE DAVIS (Public Affairs Officer, National Interagency Fire Center): Our folks have been going hard in support of hurricanes in the fall, fires in the Midwest in the spring, and now the Western fire season. So we're really trying to watch and care for each other where it comes to mental and physical fatigue.

KASTE: So far this year, wild land fires have burned 8.1 million acres. That's almost twice the 10 year average for this date. In fact, the acreage has been increasing steadily year-on-year.

Tom Worrell(ph), a wild land fire analysts for the Forest Service, says there does seem to be a trend. But he also points out that each year's fires often take place in very different parts of the country. Last year, for example, much of the burned forests were in Alaska. He says he can't predict whether the trend will continue in future years, but he does have an idea about the next few months.

Mr. TOM WORRELL (Fire Analyst, U.S. Forest Service): It's not looking real good. At this point, a lot of the indices are at or above 20-year record for right now.

KASTE: He's talking about recent measurements of the potential fuel that's accumulated in Western forests - that's the drying trees and undergrowth just waiting for a spark of lightning. Unless the weather gets a lot wetter across the Midwest and Northwest, he says firefighters could be in for a long autumn.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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