States, feds try to keep up with wildfires

 

 

With major fires burning in more than a dozen states and officials on high alert for more, authorities are scrambling to contain the blazes and keep new ones from igniting, despite unfavorable weather and strained resources.

The worst fires have hit the West, where stifling heat, drought conditions and frequent thunderstorms bringing wind and lightning have proven a disastrous natural combination. More than 1 million acres already have been torched in Idaho and Montana , where crews from around the country battled 36 large blazes as of last Friday (Aug. 17), according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC). Oregon , Washington and Wyoming also faced at least three major fires each, and conflagrations continued in states as far afield as Alaska and Hawaii .

The NIFC, which coordinates firefighting efforts nationwide from its base in Boise , Idaho , last month raised the nation's wildfire preparedness level to its highest degree, freeing up additional help from cooperating agencies at home and abroad. Canada , for example, is expected to send units to assist in Idaho and Montana . At least 6.1 million acres across the United States have burned so far this year, according to statistics compiled by the NIFC and updated daily.

"Every year the fire season is longer and worse than the year before, and we're seeing that again this year," said Steven Kline, director of federal forestry programs with the National Association of State Foresters in Washington , D.C.

Governors in at least 11 states, most of them in the West, have made emergency declarations this summer because of wildfires, and some states - most recently Michigan and Montana - announced burning bans in an effort to prevent uncontrolled blazes. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) asked localities across the state to ban the personal use of fireworks , but many local leaders ignored the request amid questions over whether they had authority to impose a ban.

Huntsman and the governors of three other Western states - Idaho , Nevada and Wyoming - held a summit Aug. 6 in Boise to address the widespread blazes and to announce a new campaign against cheatgrass, a highly flammable, invasive weed blamed for fires in those states. Declaring a "war on cheatgrass," the governors pledged to rehabilitate thousands of acres of burned rangeland and reduce the chances of future fires by reseeding the land with less-flammable vegetation, such as sagebrush.

"Together, we can accomplish far more than we otherwise would alone, as one state," said Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons (R), who last month also met with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) in the wake of a wildfire that burned 3,000 acres near Lake Tahoe , a popular resort that straddles the two states. "It is my hope that we will find alternatives to previous rangeland management practices that will benefit all western states facing similar challenges," Gibbons said.

Federal authorities also are stepping up efforts to confront the fires. U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, the former governor of Idaho , last month ordered the Interior Department "to make all qualified personnel immediately available to assist in our fire suppression efforts," which could provide as many as 1,000 extra workers to help battle the blazes.

Resources remain strained despite recent state and federal efforts. In the four states working to eliminate cheatgrass, for example, a shortage of seeds for replacement grasses complicates the governors' plans for land rehabilitation; some of the lands where the seeds originate have burned.

States without the manpower to fight large fires are relying on help from elsewhere, said Tina Boehle, a public information officer with the NIFC. Officials in Alaska recently said they would send firefighters and equipment to Montana , for example.

Kline, of the state foresters' association, said devastating fires could be kept to a minimum if the federal government spent more money on the prevention of major blazes, notably through the removal of hazardous fuels from forest areas. The national Forest Service , he said, now spends 45 percent of its budget on fighting fires, compared with 13 percent in 1991 - proof, as Kline sees it, that the service has been losing its focus on prevention.

Kline said more funding should be aimed at "creating a healthy forest that can handle fire, keep it on the ground, keep it containable and keep it as a healthy part of the ecosystem."

 
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