Firefighters in the West prepare for what could be another busy summer wildfire season

Colorado state patrol officers help maintain road closures.
Helen H. Richardson | The Denver Post | Getty Images
Colorado state patrol officers help maintain road closures.
  • Firefighters in Western states are preparing for what could be another difficult summer wildfire season.
  • Extreme heat along with drought conditions and more than 129 million dead trees could pose a fire hazard.
  • Mock drills have been staged with fire crews in several Western states in recent weeks.
  • As of Saturday, there were major wildfires burning in several states, including Colorado, California and New Mexico.

Thursday was the first day of summer, which means we're just at the start of hot and tinder-dry conditions that will bring added danger of wildfires in the Western states.

Fire agencies are keeping helicopters, air tankers and other equipment ready to attack wildfires at a moment's notice. High temperatures in the 90s and in the triple digits in some areas have created dangerous wildfire conditions and led firefighters to prepare for the worst.

Soaring firefighting costs

There also have been mock drills staged with fire crews at several locations in the past month to prepare for a tough fire season. Last year, federal firefighting costs topped $2.9 billion, an increase of 48 percent from 2016, and the number of acres burned was the second highest on record going back to the 1980s.

A man runs through flames to save his cats at his mobile home along Highway 33 in Casita Springs in Ventura County, California, during the Thomas Fire on Dec. 5, 2017.
Wally Skalij | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images
A man runs through flames to save his cats at his mobile home along Highway 33 in Casita Springs in Ventura County, California, during the Thomas Fire on Dec. 5, 2017.

"We are predicting a busy fire season just because of some of the drought that we saw in different parts of the country last year and through the winter," said Shawna Legarza, national fire director at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service.

Then again, Legarza said the fire seasons are longer now and go beyond the summer months. She said major fires are taking place into the fall and even in December, such as last year's massive Thomas fire in Southern California that scorched more than 281,000 acres.

According to Legarza, the number of wildfires so far this year is slightly less than a year ago but there's been "just a little bit of an uptick in the amount of acres that were burned so far this year." She said even areas that had high snowpack from the previous winter have seen increased activity because temperatures have been hotter and drier.

California, Colorado and New Mexico already have experienced several significant wildfires since May, including the Buzzard fire in southwest New Mexico — a blaze 85 percent contained as of Saturday afternoon after charring nearly 50,000 acres since its start May 22. There also have been large wildfires in the northern portion of New Mexico where the state is facing exceptional and extreme drought conditions.

As of Saturday, the Forest Service had at least seven wildfires burning nationwide on more than 126,000 acres, with the Buzzard fire in the Gila National Forest the largest of the blazes.

Colorado

In Colorado, the 416 fire north of Durango has burned more than 34,000 acres and was 37 percent contained Saturday. There are also multiple smaller wildfires burning in Oregon and Washington state.

The 416 fire in the southwestern part of Colorado has burned in an area with drought conditions and extensive fuels such as grass, brush and timber. Personnel from all around the United States are fighting the fire.

The 416 fire has burned mostly in the San Juan National Forest and cost an estimated $20.5 million to fight since it broke out June 1. The National Weather Service has a red flag warning due to extreme fire weather in the 416 fire area through Saturday night as a result of gusty winds and low humidity.

"There's a few days of critical fire weather ahead of us," said 416 fire team spokesman Jamie Knight. "It's going to be continued hot and dry for the next few days. But the plan is to continue to improve lines and work toward keeping the upper hand."

As of Saturday morning, Washington state had at least a dozen small wildfires burning. The Milepost 22 fire near Vantage in central Washington began Wednesday and has blackened more than 7,200 acres. The blaze reached 89 percent containment Saturday.

In the past two weeks, approximately 900 fire personnel across Washington have been performing joint interagency fire drills with Forest Service firefighters. Seasonal fire crews also have been getting refresher training in recent weeks in Oregon, California and Colorado.

Oregon

In Oregon, multiple wildfires are burning, including several on rangelands believed to have been sparked this week by lightning strikes.

More than 600 lightning strikes were recorded in the state from Wednesday until Thursday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service.

"What we're seeing is grassy range fires, which is a very typical fuel to burn this time of year," said Carol Connolly, a spokesperson for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland, Oregon. "As we move into the summer, then we start to see the larger fuels and the forested areas, but in the spring and early summer it's typical to see these kinds of range fires when there's an ignition spark."

One of the largest blazes in Oregon is the Boxcar fire burning in short grass and brush. The blaze, just outside the community of Maupin in the northern portion of the state, grew to 23,000 acres as of Saturday afternoon — up from 10,000 acres a day earlier.

There's also the Graham fire in central Oregon burning near a state park. Fanned by high winds, the Graham blaze has charred more than 2,000 acres and Thursday evening forced evacuations and threatened homes.

"There are structural task forces working around the threatened homes," Jim Gersbach, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said Friday morning. "There may have been damage from the fires, so today they are doing some assessment to look at that."

Oregon has a fleet of firefighting air resources pre-positioned around the state at various bases that allow authorities to bring those resources onto fires within a few hours. They include helicopters, single-engine air tankers and large air tankers as well as detection aircraft.

California

Similarly, California is bracing for a busy wildfire season. The state has an army of more than 7,000 fire personnel and an air force of 22 tankers, a dozen helicopters and 17 spotter planes to help in the effort. California also has agreements with other states to bring in additional crews and air resources if needed to fight major wildfires.

A water-dropping helicopter trails mist as as firefighters clear burned and unburned brush from a hillside after a wildfire broke out in the Benedict Canyon area of Los Angeles, June 12, 2018.
Reed Saxon | AP
A water-dropping helicopter trails mist as as firefighters clear burned and unburned brush from a hillside after a wildfire broke out in the Benedict Canyon area of Los Angeles, June 12, 2018.

"Our initial attack aircraft and helicopters are strategically placed throughout the state, so no matter where a fire starts they are no more than 30 minutes away," said Lynn Tolmachoff, a spokesperson for Cal Fire. "If a fire gets larger, that's when you'll see us call in very large air tankers, such as the DC-7, the C-130s and that sort of thing."

There's also a new robotic fire hydrant being tested in California's Orange County to help water-dropping helicopters on blazes in remote areas. It allows helicopters to fill up with more than 2,000 gallons of water in less than a minute from remotely activated snorkel sites, eliminates the need for ground personnel to control water values and saves travel time to reservoirs.

Years of drought and bark beetle destruction has left an estimated 129 million dead trees in California and the threat of new devastating wildfires. There's a buildup of brush and other fuels that adds to the risk in many regions of the state.

Earlier this month, several brush fires in Southern California forced thousands of residents in the Laguna Beach and Alison Viejo areas to be evacuated. There also was a brush fire last week in the Benedict Canyon area of Los Angeles County that led to evacuations and threatened multimillion-dollar homes.

Last year, California experienced its largest and costliest fire season in recorded history, according to Cal Fire. There were 9,133 fires statewide that charred more than 1.38 million acres, or the equivalent of some 2,156 square miles. Nearly 10,000 structures were destroyed, and insurance industry estimates put the economic damage at more than $13 billion.

The Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties last December ranks as the largest fire in recorded California history. The fire destroyed more than 1,000 structures, killed two people and cost the state an estimated $175 million to fight.

Northern California's wine country fires in October caused 44 fatalities and destroyed entire neighborhoods in Santa Rosa.

The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning for this weekend for parts of the same region, including portions of Napa and Sonoma counties, due to fire danger caused by gusty winds, low humidity and high temperatures. Cal Fire announced Saturday morning it brought in additional aviation assets to bolster its response to new blazes.

State and local firefighters were battling at least six wildfires in Northern California on Saturday afternoon, including the 900-acre Lane fire in Tehama County that led to forced evacuations. Triple-digit temperatures in the fire zone was leaving firefighters to battle heat exhaustion as well as flames.