Equilibrium & Sustainability

Western wildfires worsen with 80 different fires

A view of smoke rising from the Bootleg Fire and a nearby forest is seen from the road

The 2021 wildfire season is intensifying in the western United States, with 80 large fires burning as of the beginning of the week, including an Oregon blaze covering more than 300,000 acres.

Statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) indicated 80 large fires have burned more than 1.15 million acres across 13 states as of Sunday.

The bulk of the fires are in Montana, with 18, and Idaho, where there are 17. California has nine fires, while Oregon has eight. The NIFC defines a “large” fire as any fire comprising at least 100 acres of timber or at least 300 acres of grasslands or rangelands.

“The main thing is that vegetation is extremely dry because the West has been quite dry and also quite hot, and then there are the immediate conditions that contribute to fire spread, which include heat and wind patterns,” Erica Fleishman, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, told The Hill.

The largest fire is the Bootleg Fire in Oregon, which is burning in the Fremont-Winema National Forest. The fire has expanded to 293,307 acres as of the beginning of this week, an area nearly the size of Los Angeles, with only 25 percent of the fire contained.

On Sunday, Lake County, Oregon, announced evacuations due to both the Bootleg Fire and the smaller Log Fire in the same forest, which has spread to 10,484 acres.

The National Weather Service (NWS) has warned that “multiple weather hazards,” including conditions that give rise to fires, will persist through much of the week ahead.

“Elevated and critical fire weather conditions and isolated dry thunderstorms will be widespread, basically from California to Montana,” the NWS said in a statement Monday.

Extreme heat will combine with a number of other factors, including extreme drought and winds as well as so-called dry lightning, or cloud-to-ground lightning that is not accompanied by rain.

“Areas of greatest concern today are expected to be found between the northern High Plains and California, where dry lightning is most likely over California and the Northern Great Basin. Red Flag Warnings and Fire Weather Watches stretch from central California to northwest South Dakota,” the NWS added.

In California, the state utility Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) said in a report Sunday that its equipment may have been a factor in the Dixie Fire, which has burned 18,702 acres in an area about 15 miles northeast of the town of Paradise.

In a report to the state Public Utilities Commission Sunday, PG&E said a repair technician saw blown conductor fuses and a fire at the base of a tree leaning against the conductor on July 13, The Associated Press reported.

“It’s likely that there are going to be more fires throughout summer, and probably autumn also throughout the western United States,” Fleishman told The Hill. “The conditions that involve the dryness of the vegetation is unlikely to change until fairly late in the year, when autumn and winter precipitation starts.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), she added, has projected that the summer is likely to be inordinately warm across the West, increasing the risk of fires. However, she noted, the NOAA is also projecting a level of monsoonal moisture in the Southwest that will offset the danger if lightning is accompanied by corresponding rainfall.

Despite the relief such moisture might provide, however, the year over year trend suggests worsening fire seasons are in the cards for the region.

“We used to call it fire season, but wildland fires now extend throughout the entire year, burning hotter and growing more catastrophic in drier conditions due to climate change,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in May.

“There has been a trend over the past 20 years or so [due] to increasing aridity and increasing heat across the western United States,” Fleishman told The Hill. “So on the whole, fire seasons are becoming longer and the area burned has been increasing.”

Tags California Climate change Idaho Montana Oregon Tom Vilsack Washington wildfires

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