Firefighters brace for severe wildfires in the west after record season

Firefighters work to stop the spread of the Loma fire off the Via del Cielo in Santa Barbara, California, United States. This photo was posted on May 21, 2021.

Mike Eliason | Santa Barbara County Fire Department | Reuters

From controlled burns to clearing vegetation, U.S. firefighters are preparing overwhelmingly for a year of wildfires that they say could be even worse than last year’s record season.

The fires arrived earlier this year, burning the West as it grapples with the worst drought in history on record by the US Drought Monitor. Warm, dry early season temperatures driven by climate change, along with a high supply of dry brush, have prepared states for more severe and frequent fires each year.

In Arizona, firefighters are already fight two huge fires fueled by warm temperatures and gusts of wind. Conditions are so dry that officials said firefighters fighting the blaze accidentally started new fires started by their equipment.

California, which experiences a drought and depleted water reservoirs, also started its season early. A fire in May forced the evacuation of hundreds of people in western Los Angeles. Five of the six largest fires in state history occurred last year, burning more than 4 million acres.

“The fire season has spread in many parts of the country to what now encompasses an entire year of fires,” said Bill Avey, USDA Forest Service National Director of Fire and Aviation.

“Managing a one-year season is increasingly difficult for the USDA and the entire forest fire management community,” Avey said.

With the lengthening of the fire season, states face the growing challenge of preparing for and adequately responding to an increase in disasters fueled by climate change year after year.

California is expected to have its biggest firefighting force on the ground this year and has already completed dozens of fuel reduction projects like controlled burns. The state’s largest utility, PG&E, also said it could shut off electricity more frequently this year to reduce the risk of fire in northern California.

And earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom called for a record $ 2 billion budget for forest fire preparedness and an expansion of the aircraft fleet to fight fires.

Since early January, California has responded to more than 2,875 wildfires that have burned more than 16,800 acres, according to Alisha Herring, communications representative for Cal Fire, the state’s firefighting agency.

“This is a significant increase in fires and acres from 2020,” Herring said.

A sign is displayed next to an empty field on May 27, 2021 in Chowchilla, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

This year, the Forest Service has 15,000 firefighters and personnel ready to put out fires, as well as up to 34 tankers, more than 200 helicopters and 900 engines for what they fear will be an unprecedented season, Avey said. .

Last month, President Joe Biden said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would double the funding available to help cities and states prepare for climate disasters like fires and hurricanes, from $ 500 million. dollars in 2020 to $ 1 billion this year.

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But the increase in FEMA funding was less than what some disaster mitigation experts believe is necessary to prepare for weather events. Last year the United States experienced 22 disasters totaling more than $ 1 billion each in record losses, according to the White House.

“Now is the time to prepare for America’s busiest time of year for disasters,” the president said following a briefing at FEMA headquarters.

Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Public Lands for Washington State, said the state is preparing for a particularly severe fire season by securing additional air resources through regional and national contracts and agreements.

Almost 85% of forest fires resulting from human activity, including unattended debris fires, discarded cigarettes, power tools and arson. Threats of fire spread and destruction are also heightened as more people build in wilderness areas prone to fires. Experts have urged federal officials to better manage forests and cities or states to have building codes that require fire-resistant materials for building homes.

“The vast majority of forest fires are caused by human activity,” said Franz. “The more people practice fire safety and avoid starting outdoor fires, the better our chances of avoiding a devastating wildfire season. “

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