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Numerous fires burn even as western U.S. evades widespread devastation

Fifty-nine large fires are burning across nine states in the American West because prolonged drought and high temperatures created conditions ripe for wildfires.

Arizona, California and Idaho are the epicenters of the fire season right now, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, with Idaho and Arizona both fighting 11 major wildland fires within their borders. There are only seven fires in California, but 114,000 acres have burned, representing a greater total than Idaho and most other states in the western United States.

In Oregon, approximately 162,000 acres have burned in the state, which experienced a record-shattering heat wave in late June and early July. Most of that is due to the Bootleg Fire, which has burned 152,000 acres since igniting on July 6, prompting evacuations and threatening an electricity infrastructure project that connects Oregon to California.

“After three days of explosive growth, a smoke inversion moderated fire activity and allowed fire crews to construct and improve fire control lines yesterday,” said U.S. Forest Service incident managers in a statement Monday. “Rather than doubling in size like prior days, the fire added 5,000 acres to the perimeter raising the total acreage to just above 150,000.”

The comment is a familiar refrain in a fire season that has been long on the number of fires and acres burning but short on major destruction to human life and property. The fires that have grown above 30,000 acres have been largely contained by vigilant firefighting forces.

So far, the number of fires at this point in the fire season has been dramatically higher than a year ago, which is widely regarded as one of the worst fire seasons in the American West’s recorded history. About 33,700 fires encompassing approximately 1.9 million acres have ignited so far in the United States, which says nothing of Canada and Siberia — both experiencing massive fire seasons.

There were about 27,000 fires with 1.3 million acres burned by this time last year, and 2020’s fire season ended up being record-breaking in many areas. However, the amount of acres burned in 2021 so far is well below mid-July 2018, when 3.3 million acres had already been charred by July 12. The story was also bad in 2017, when 3.9 million acres had been scorched by the time July 12 arrived.

But those who watch wildfires closely say that what’s concerning is not the number of fires and total acreage, but the dry conditions in the forest.

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“Wildfire folks are nervous not because fires this season so far have been extraordinary — though there has been extreme behavior unusually early — but because of what preconditions portend for peak season, which is yet to come,” said National Weather Service forecaster Daniel Swain.

Phil Higuera, a professor at the University of Montana, said wildfire experts are ill at ease because high-wind events common to the American West don’t pick up until the end of summer and into fall. 

“What is striking about the Northern Rockies is how dry fuels are for mid-July, how warm and dry the weather outlook is, and how much time is left for fire to overlap with high wind events,” Higuera said. 

This year, the American West has so far avoided any fires causing major damage to life and property, like 2017’s Wine Country Fires or the Camp Fire in 2018 that killed 84 people and destroyed the town of Paradise.

But experts believe those fires could be on the horizon due to a lack of moisture in the vegetation throughout the region, which has seen little rain and high temperatures; one windy day could cause a lot of damage. 

Two people died on Saturday while fighting the Cedar Basin Fire in Arizona. An air attack supervisor and the pilot were conducting visual reconnaissance when their plane crashed.

“The firefighting community extends its condolences to the family and friends of the deceased,” the National Interagency Fire Center announced Monday.

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Don Weaver/Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management

The Telegraph Fire near Superior, AZ. It was of several fires in the state that fire officials have battled because of weather and drought conditions.