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Wildfires Burn Across American West

  • Charles Ray

It's fire season in the United States and currently there are more than 30 large fires actively burning across the Mountains and Plains of the western United States. Nearly 14,000 square kilometers have already burned. With one eye on the weather, and another on the flames, hundreds of firefighters and volunteers are criss-crossing the west, doing what they can to control the blazes.

A helicopter carrying a load of water hovers over a burning section of trees before dumping its load on the blaze. Choppers are important tools for the nation's firefighters. Besides dousing fires with thousands of liters of water at a time, aircraft like this can also deliver personnel like Miguel Bilbough onto remote burns in an effort to stop them before they spread. Bilbough is Squad Boss for the Idaho "Helitack" fire crew, one of the elite firefighters who rappel out of helicopters into burning timber. "It's a great job," he insists. "You travel, get to see a lot of great places in the west. I work with great people and it's a lot of fun." But, he admits, "sometimes it's hard work, and sometimes it's not a lot of fun... but yeah, it can be... arduous."

The arduous part involves hours and hours of hot, backbreaking work. At the Ricco fire in South Dakota, Bilbough and his fellow firefighters quickly dig a shallow trench around a blackened section of timber, as a ground fire sparks and crackles around them.

This "Hot Shot" crew is one of many that travel around the country each summer fighting forest fires. Their tools: chainsaws, axes, rakes and shovels. Their goal: to dig a trench around the entire perimeter of the fire. It's hard, long, hot, dirty work... but firefighters like Miguel Bilbough say getting 'up close and personal' with wildfires is how they bring them under control... "You ask me how important it is?" he asks. "I'd say there is not a lot that would get done in the west without them."

While much of the west is suffering from an extended drought, this spring brought some temporary relief. Many areas of the western United States saw above average rainfall throughout the season… but that may be contributing to larger and hotter fires. As Lyle Carlyle with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, explains, more spring rain means more vegetation, which in turn means more fuel for summer fires. "And that's what we're seeing this year with the fire seasons, we're getting a large amounts of large fires in the desert areas of Arizona and New Mexico," he says, adding, "it's primarily a result of those wet spring rains that we had that brought on a phenomenal amount of fuels growth down there."

Many in this part of the country are getting used to facing large forest fires every summer. There are now thousands of hectares on fire in the western United States. Some of the largest burns are in the desert Southwest. So far this year, hundreds of people have been evacuated from their homes as massive wildfires encroached on populated areas. A number of homes have already been lost. Marie Hanson was evacuated from her home after a wildfire came within 300 meters of her back door. "It's very unnerving and very -- you know -- scary, I guess, for lack of a better word," she tells a reporter. "You realize that it's that close. You can see the flames and you know that everything you have as far as possessions in the world is kind of on the line and could be gone in an instant."

The National Interagency Fire Center notes that over the last decade, western wildfires seem to be getting hotter and bigger. Both global warming and past forest management practices have been blamed for exacerbating the problem. But Dan Ware with the Forestry Division of New Mexico says the western part of the country - with its dry climate and large open expanses of land - is prone to burn. "No matter how much moisture we get here in the Western United States we are always, always going to get wildfires."

The Ricco fire in South Dakota was eventually contained after charring about 15 square kilometers. It burned one home to the ground and forced the evacuation of hundreds of others. It is one of more than 40 large forest fires that have hit the Western United States so far this summer. And as crews like this one work to get these fires under control, they know they will likely be busy cutting trenches until the wet winter weather returns.