The predictable devastation caused by the systematic federal mismanagement of vast tracts of unused and often off-limits land has already reached epic proportions in 2017.
The Washington post reports:
Every night smoke rolls into Seeley Lake, Mont., like a ghostly flood tide. A wildfire on the ridge above the valley town has blazed since July. The smoke descends on a wave of chilled night air and settles.
“It’s been described to me in apocalyptic terms,” said Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department. “Visibility has been down to less than a block.” On Wednesday, Seeley Lake set a record for its worst air quality ever recorded, at 18 times the particle pollution limit deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. The air was so bad that, for five hours, the air monitor in Seeley Lake could not measure the particle concentration — it was above the device’s limit.
This fire season, wildfires like the one above Seeley Lake have burned through nine states: California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Through early Friday, there have been 47,705 wildfires reported since the start of the year, slightly below the 10-year-average for this point in the season, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center, which oversees the state and federal response.
But many of the fires quickly grew in size, putting the United States on pace to exceed the average acreage burned annually over the past 10 years. Fires nationwide have consumed 8,036,858 acres — about 12,550 square miles, larger than the size of Maryland — since Jan. 1. In an average year, 5,516,000 acres would have burned through this point of the fire season, according to agency statistics.
Many of the large fires this year have been concentrated in the northern Rocky and Cascade mountain regions, two areas that are experiencing their worst fire seasons in years.
Twenty fires have started in Montana’s Glacier National Park, said Mike Johnson, a fire information officer at the park. “Eighteen of those we were able to get under initial attack,” he said. The other two, the Adair Peak fire and the Sprague fire, withstood 143,600 gallons of water poured from helicopters. The fires have been blazing since a lightning storm on Aug. 10.
Smoke and low visibility has grounded the helicopters, Johnson said. A predicted low pressure system should blow some of the smoke clear in the next few days. This will aid firefighters, but will also invigorate the wildfires choking beneath the cloud. Meanwhile, the Sprague fire recently claimed a century-old chalet. The park itself remains open, Johnson said, though western sections, including parts of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, are closed.
On Thursday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and 11 other Democratic and Republican senators sent a letter to Senate leaders Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to improve the federal response to the fire. The Forest Service, low on money, will have to reallocate up to $300 million from different accounts, the senators warned in the letter. The diverted funds would have been used for protective measures, like stopping emerald ash borer beetles from eating New York trees. Or for curbing future fires.
“Because we haven’t seen fires of this magnitude — I can’t recall ever seeing fires of this magnitude — we have got to use this moment,” Wyden said, speaking Friday at the Multnomah County Emergency Operations Center at Troutdale Police Station in Oregon. Wyden and the other senators have asked Congress to provide sufficient funds to the Forest Service, so the agency can react to both suppress and prevent wildfires.
Oregon has also experienced significant harm from wildfires this year.
Fire has seared more than 640,000 acres in Oregon, nearly three times the area that burned last year. Near the state’s Eagle Creek Canyon, teenagers lobbed a smoke bomb into dry brush, sparking a blaze that turned 30 square miles to ash.
The “Chetco Bar” fire in southern Oregon has been burning for nearly two months and has consumed 180,000 acres. The fire, sparked by lightning, forced hundreds of residents from their homes in mid-August but it remains just 5 percent contained.
On Aug. 20, the fire rapidly advanced toward Brookings, a heavily-wooded oceanfront town of 6,000 residents. Shortly before dusk, authorities rushed through the outskirts of town urging residents to immediately leave their homes.
“It was a pretty scary thing because it was just an hour’s notice, and we had to get out,” said Sue Gold, a local resident and vice-chairwoman of the Curry County Board of Commissioners. “The fire was coming at us so quickly, and we didn’t have the forces to fight the fire.”
Gold, 70, said it was only after authorities rushed in firefighting reinforcements but “only after they realized the whole town was in danger.” Gold returned home three days later. The fire, she said, should “have been taken care of a lot earlier.”
“When it barely started, when it was a quarter acre, they could have taken a couple helicopters in there, dropped water, and that would have been it,” said Gold, noting parts of the area are still under an evacuation order. “A lot of individuals here are very upset, especially the ones who lost their homes.”
Montana has also not been spared.
More than 1.1 million acres have burned through Montana as the state struggles through its most destructive fire season in at least 20 years. The severity of this year’s fires can be partially traced to the drought in central and northeastern Montana, where lightning and sparks can easily ignite thousands of miles of moisture-starved grassland. Glasgow, in the northeastern part of the state, is experiencing its driest year on record with just 3.72 inches of rain and snow, according to the National Weather Service.
Small-town football games and other athletic events have been canceled in many parts of the state. In Kalispell, this weekend’s sixth annual Montana Dragon Boat isn’t taking place “due to unhealthy air conditions caused by forest fire smoke,” its website announced.
“Unfortunately, we have fallen victim to the ravages of Mother Nature, and the air quality in the area has become too compromised to hold the event,” Diane Medler, director of the Kalispell Convention & Visitor Bureau, said in a statement.
What does all of this cost?
Jessica Gardetto of the National Interagency Fire Center said the U.S. Forest Service has spent about $1.75 billion on fire-suppression efforts this year. The Department of Interior, which includes the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, have spent another $400 million.
The two agencies spent a combined $2 billion last year and $2.1 billion in 2015, according to federal data.
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