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Wildfires hit the West: ‘We’re stretched to our limits’

Fires this year have covered 1 million more acres than the 10-year average from January to July.


Vehicle malfunctions, lightning and alleged arson ignited some of the most violent wildfires of the 2018 season in the West, but prolonged drought, record temperatures and ready fuel have fed them.

While fewer fires have sparked this summer than the 10-year average, they’ve burned wider — 1 million more acres than the January to July average, totaling 4.8 million. They’ve also wreaked havoc on communities, especially in California.

At least eight people have died in the wake of two separate California blazes. The Carr Fire has torn through 160 square miles of Shasta and Trinity counties, killing two firefighters and at least four others near Redding. As of publication, it was 30 percent contained. The Ferguson Fire near Yosemite National Park also claimed two lives, and winds stoked newer fires on the edge of the Mendocino National Forest and near Yuba City, California this week.

Further north, flames crowd Oregon’s southwestern corner. The Taylor Creek fires and others closed parts of the Rogue River and prompted evacuations. In Idaho and the Utah-Nevada border, fires have ballooned to over 100,000 acres.

After a dry June, fire intensity in the Southwest has plateaued, in part due to moisture from late-summer monsoons. A wetter fall due to El Niño, an atmospheric phenomenon that warms the Pacific, could help.

Historically, August is the peak of Western fire season, but the National Interagency Fire Center predicts worrisome coastal fire conditions through the fall. Ed Delgado, the center’s program manager for predictive services, said California and the Northwest will be hotter and drier than average into September. The risks could creep into the Great Basin and Northern Rockies.

In a 2015 report, the Forest Service attributed longer fire seasons to a warming climate. In his 25 years of experience, Delgado said he’s seen big blazes like the Carr erupt earlier in the year. “Some threaten resources, and others threaten communities,” Delgado said of the near-100 current large fires. “We’re stretched to our limits.” 

Elena Saavedra Buckley is an editorial intern at High Country News.