Surveying The Wildfires Burning Across The Western U.S.

Sep 10, 2017
Originally published on September 11, 2017 2:45 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is in Miami, covering Hurricane Irma, and we'll hear from her in just a few minutes. But first, 2017 is on track to become one of the worst wildfire seasons in memory. Dozens of fires are scorching forests and grasslands across the West and the Northwest. A blanket of smoke from the fires has been drifting over the region for several days. Chris Wilcox is with the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates wildland firefighting efforts across the country. He joins us from Boise, Idaho.

Thanks for doing this.

CHRIS WILCOX: Yeah, you're welcome. Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Good morning. Could you give us an update on the scale of the fires around the country right now? Do you know how many fires there are and where they are?

WILCOX: Yes, we currently have about 123 large wildland fires across the nation. They are primarily in the Northwest - as you mentioned - Oregon, Wash., Northern California, Southern California. Montana is another state that has been under the siege that we've seen this year, as well. So we have currently about 2 million acres on fire across the West.

WERTHEIMER: It seems, like, recent summers we get to a certain point where headline after headline is about fire, and the fire season getting longer. Is this - is it true? Is it - does this stack up as a longer fire season?

WILCOX: Well, this one in particular has been a longer season. It really hasn't stopped since the fall of 2016. We had a long fire season in the Southern states - Georgia, Florida, et cetera - and now it's continued to progress and move and migrate its way westward as the seasons have changed through the year. So it's has been a long season for us.

WERTHEIMER: How are your firefighting units doing when it comes to resources and to manpower? Do you have what you need to deal with so many fires?

WILCOX: Well, currently, Linda, we have over 25,000 responders that are out on wildfires. We are currently stretched thin. The national preparedness level goes from one to five, and we are currently under preparedness level five, which means all of our national wildland firefighting assets are committed. But we have continued to work with our state and local partners. We've activated the National Guard, who's currently working in several states, as well as trained and deployed a half a battalion of active duty soldiers who are also responding and supporting the wildland firefighting efforts.

WERTHEIMER: It seems like that all the smoke that we hear about that is lingering across many parts of the West not just where the fire is burning, but where the smoke has moved to. How bad is it? Is it dangerous?

WILCOX: Well, yes. The air quality has been very bad for the last several weeks across numerous states in the West. It's fairly common in late August to see a high pressure set up over the West for one to two weeks, which stagnates the air and traps the smoke in. And those communities that are typically close to the fires are affected and subject to the impacts of that smoke trapped by the high pressure. But what we've experienced through the last couple of weeks was we had so much fire on the ground at the same time in the Northwest, the northern Rockies, Great Basin and Northern California, as well as British Columbia and Canada. That high pressure parked right over the top of those areas, which essentially trapped that smoke in.

WERTHEIMER: Chris, thank you very much. Chris Wilcox of the National Interagency Fire Center, Thank you for being with us.

WILCOX: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.