Twenty years ago, wildfire blackened 1 million acres in and near Yellowstone National Park, caused more than $3 million in property damage, and killed two firefighters. Such humongous wildfires will become more and more common in Western states as the climate warms, according to dozens of researchers. The latest such report, from the National Wildlife Federation, predicts a barbequed West thanks to hot and dry weather, more lightning, and desiccated, fuels-filled forests. As of mid-August, the Forest Service ranked the fire danger as high to extreme across more than half the region.
Even so, the West's fire season has been mixed. A cool start to summer and fewer violent thunderstorms created a less-intense-than-usual fire season in many states. Just 14,000 acres have burned in Montana to date, compared to 740,000 last year. About 15,000 acres have burned in Colorado, roughly the same as last year. In Wyoming, 4,000 acres have blackened this summer -- 85 percent of that thanks to just two big fires, neither of which was contained at press time. In 2007, more than 1 million acres of Idaho went up in flames, but so far this year, 55,000 acres have burned. Nevada also saw about a million acres incinerated last year, but just 21,000 so far this season. Roughly 11,000 acres of Utah have been charred, while New Mexico has seen at least 23,000 acres flambeed, Arizona 28,000 and Washington 55,000. California has suffered the most, though -- since June, wildfire has seared 1.5 million acres and killed 15 people.
As predictably as lightning bolts -- and lighter-wielding pyros -- set the West's forests on fire, federal agencies run out of money to fight those fires. Congress put $1.2 billion in the Forest Service's pocket this year to prevent and suppress fires, and the agency has burned through about a billion of that already. It expects to spend another $400 million before the fire season's done. The Forest Service is now raiding the piggybanks of its other programs -- it's even taking $30 million from community programs meant to reduce the risk of wildfire. Western politicians have been pushing for emergency firefighting funding; Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., are seeking $900 million for the Forest Service, but so far, no dice.
Feinstein's state has seen its pocketbook emptied by the conflagrations. California, already staggering under a $15.2 billion budget deficit, has blazed through nearly $300 million this year to fight fires. Just a decade ago, $44 million covered the state's annual firefighting costs. In response, Gov. Schwarzenegger plans to reduce the pay of thousands of state workers and lay off others. Now, the state might slap a 0.75 percent premium on all home insurance policies, raised to 1.4 percent for folks living in fire-, flood-, or earthquake-prone areas.
Meanwhile, renewable-energy projects might help put out the fires by cooling the climate-change engines. In central California, OptiSolar and SunPower Corp. plan to build two new photovoltaic plants by 2013. Together the plants will pump out about 800 megawatts of power on sunny days, about as much as a big coal-burner or a small nuke plant. And DCE, an affiliate of Caithness Energy, announced plans for 30 square miles of wind turbines in north-central Oregon; when completed in 2012, the 909-megawatt project will be one of the world's biggest wind farms. To further slash greenhouse gas emissions, Colorado just approved Xcel Energy's plan to shut down two coal-fired power plants in the next two years, and add another 350 megawatts of solar and wind.
Following the flame
Do you pine for nonstop travel, rugged terrain and fireproof Nomex? Maybe it's time to try fighting wildland fires on one of the nation's 105 interagency hotshot crews. Take the Fort Collins, Colo.-based Roosevelt Hotshots, for example, whose frenetic movements during 2007 are shown here. "It all kind of blends together,"says Roosevelt crew Assistant Superintendent Joe Suarez. "Plane crash fires, folks going to Australia and Southern California -- just our normal season."