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America's Wildfire Crisis

As climate change feeds the drought, crews from all 50 states are battling the infernos out West

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The American West, parched for years, is now experiencing an exceptional outbreak of wildfires. The infernos are currently raging across 740,000 acres in 11 states, and 13,000 firefighters are spread just as widely to try to combat the blazes. For the first time in recent memory, the U.S. Forest Service has called in firefighters from all 50 states, as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. The Interior Department also raised the National Preparedness Level to 5 this week, signifying the highest-possible level of resources committed to battling severe conditions.

“It’s been busier,” U.S. Forest Service spokesman Stanton Florea told the New Republic on Friday. “Our response is just based on the amount of fire activity we have. We’ve had four years of drought and so forests are very dry.” Both the drought and invasive insects like the bark beetle have led to a lot of dying brush and trees—more than twice the acreage of California forests was dead or dying in 2014 compared to 2013.

Not only does this create ideal conditions for fires to advance, but it causes wildfire season to last much longer. The peak of wildfire season usually extends from the late summer to the fall, but earlier fires are increasingly common. This year, California has seen an “unusual increase in wildfires during the winter months,” according to the state’s fire agency. Florea said the state has seen about 400 more wildfires, covering about 70,000 more acres, compared to this point last summer. In Washington and Oregon, as well, there were already more than 300 wildfires by June, compared to 200 for the same period the year before, the Associated Press reported.

Currently, California is battling more than a dozen major fires, the most dangerous being the Jerusalem fire threatening rural communities in the north. In the last days of July alone, a few dry thunderstorms caused 13,000 lightning strikes, which sparked more than 260 fires on National Forest lands. California in the past has sent firefighters to states like Alaska and Washington to battle fires. Getting help in return isn’t unusual, Florea said. “We go where the highest priority is.” At the same time, crews are battling a 218,000-acre behemoth in Idaho. As the call this week to all 50 states shows, resources are being stretched to the max.

The most important figure, however, is the 10-year rolling average of wildfire suppression costs, which is used to predict how much funding goes toward future budgets. This year, the number of acres burned is already 38 percent ahead of what's typical, which means the country is quickly running out of money to fight wildfires. An August report from the Forest Service outlines the budgetary challenges—in 1995, fire fighting accounted for just 16 percent of its annual appropriations, which will grow to an unprecedented 50 percent in 2015.

“Fire seasons are growing longer, hotter, more unpredictable and more expensive every year, and there is no end in sight,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement on Thursday. “Within just 10 years, two out of every three dollars the Forest Service gets from Congress will be spent on fire programs, which leaves much fewer resources for the very restoration projects that have been proven to reduce the risk of wildfire and improve forest health.”

Indeed, the more money spent on firefighting leaves fewer dollars for prevention efforts, like clearing brush, removing dead trees, and managing controlled burns.

The Forest Service, then, is really fighting two storms, which are growing with every passing year. Thanks to climate change, drought-fueled wildfires are becoming more frequent and more intense. And the ensuing funding crisis makes it that much harder to stop them.