Al Jazeera: US Wildfires


US Wildfire Costs Top $1 Billion for 2013

Climate change and home building trends in fire prone areas collide to create big price tag.

By Al Jazeera America, August 20 2013.

The battle against wildfires in Oregon, Idaho and Montana has helped push the national cost of fighting fires past $1 billion this year, the National Interagency Fire Center said Tuesday, as more than 40 active wildfires continue to rage from Arizona to Washington state to Alaska.

The Boise, Idaho based firefighting center is organizing and providing crews and resources for the Beaver Creek, Idaho wildfire, which has forced the evacuation of 1,250 homes in the resort area of Ketchum and Sun Valley and has cost nearly $12 million so far. The center coordinates equipment, aircraft and personnel to battle back wildfires across the U.S. About 17,800 people have been dispatched to fight the fires. Steve Gage, assistant director of operations for the fire center, said they can’t fill all the requests for crews and equipment from the 48 fires that remain uncontained around the country.

The center increased the national wildfire preparedness level Tuesday to the highest possible level for the first time in five years. “Right now, firefighting resources are absolutely stretched to the limit. Once a fire is out, firefighters immediately move to the next one, using every available resource, planes, helicopters, trucks,” according to Al Jazeera correspondent Paul Beban, on the ground inear the Beaver Creek fire, the top priority for the firefighting center.

“We’ve had firefighters here tell us that these wildfires are getting worse and worse year after year.” This year, 33,000 fires have burned 3.4 million acres of land. Scientists suspect climate change could be the cause for the increased destruction, made more expensive as more people live in areas affected by the blazes. “Definitely something is happening in terms of the size and scope of wildland fires, and it would be myopic not to look at the possibility that one factor is climate change,” Carroll Wills, a spokesperson with the California firefighters union, told Al Jazeera last week, adding that the blazes “certainly started earlier in the season this year.”

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Professor Norman Christensen of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, an expert in the environmental impact of forest fires, said fires have been particularly intense in Colorado, California and Idaho this year. ”Certainly drought in some areas has contributed to the number and intensity of fire events,” he said. “But many of the fires have been in highly populated, wilderness-urban interface areas such as Colorado Springs, Sun Valley, Idaho, and the west slope of the Sierra Nevada. That adds greatly to costs since so many more resources are required to protect built structures.”

Jason Sibold, assistant professor of biogeography at Colorado State University, said since the 1990s, the climate has been changing, producing hotter, drier and longer summers in the West. The costs go up as more people build vacation homes in the woods. “The societal demand to try to control and fight these fires is escalating at the same pace as the climate’s warming,” he said.

See Al Jazeera America, US Wildfire Costs, August 20 2013.

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