Utah, Washington, among states exceeding firefighting budgets as forest fires burn bigger; number of U.S. fires is down from 10-year annual average of 54,209, but area exceeds 5.4 million-acre average
August 22, 2012
– Twisted sheets of metal, the hulks of pickup trucks and brick walls were all that was left of homes once sheltered by green pine and cedar trees.
In a rural Northern California subdivision that was the latest to feel the wrath of massive western wildfires, long pine needles bent back on themselves, unburned but dried to a brittle dusty gray by the intensive heat of the Ponderosa fire.
Thousands of residents of tiny rural communities just outside Lassen Volcanic National Park who had been forced to flee soon after the fire was ignited by lighting on Saturday were allowed to return home on Wednesday. But hundreds of other homes were threatened as the fire burned a new front on the southern flank.
The blaze has grown to more than 37 square miles in the hills about 25 miles southeast of Redding.
Bob Folsom, who works at a nearby hydroelectric facility, tended the gasoline generator that is keeping his refrigerator running while utility crews worked to replace power lines destroyed by the blaze when it roared through the area last weekend.
"I was ready for this day," he said. "I try to be self-sufficient."
Folsom and his son never left their home as the fire burned within a half mile of them last weekend, close enough that they heard trees exploding and the flames roaring like a freight train. Over the past 10 years, they had thinned hundreds of trees, dug a pond to store water, and installed hydrants to fill fire hoses.
"When it comes through, it's gonna come fast," he said. "You don't have time to cut down trees."
Fires across the West have left some states with thin budgets to scramble to get people, planes, bulldozers and other tools on fire lines to beat back the flames.
And that's with about a third of the annual wildfire season remaining.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, the nation as of Wednesday had seen 42,927 wildfires this year, which burned just over 7 million acres.
While the number of fires is down from the 10-year average of 54,209 as of Aug. 22, the acreage was well above the average of 5.4 million acres, said Don Smurthwaite, a NIFC spokesman.
"The fires are bigger," he said.
In Colorado Springs, Colo., this summer, about 350 homes were burned in the most destructive wildfire in state history. Another fire in northern Colorado just before it scorched 257 homes.
The costs have mounted, not just in the damage to houses and other buildings.
In Utah, for example, officials have spent $50 million as of mid-August to fight more than 1,000 wildfires, far surpassing the $3 million a year the Legislature budgeted for fighting wildfires.
The state's share is estimated at $16 million, said Roger Lewis of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. He said lawmakers will need to figure out how to come up with $13 million.
That's the largest-ever supplemental appropriation request needed for firefighting in the state, agency spokesman Jason Curry said. He said, "It's obviously been a big year."
Washington state fire officials project that they will spend about $19.8 million on emergency fire suppression activities in the current fiscal year that ends next June.
That is expected to far surpass the $11.2 million the agency was allotted for such work, meaning the Department of Natural Resources will have to ask the Legislature for supplemental funds.
Not all Western states are seeing their budgets busted because of fires.
In Oregon, the state estimated it had spent $3.4 million through last Saturday to fight wildfires, with more than two months of the season left. Last year, it spent $6.6 million.
In Montana, forest managers told Gov. Brian Schweitzer that long-term forecasts call for fire conditions through the end of September, which is longer than normal.
The Northern Rockies Coordination Center put the total cost of fighting large wildfires in Montana, including costs to federal and state agencies, at $64 million so far this season. The state's share is about $25 million to fight fires that have burned about 1,100 square miles.
Schweitzer said the state has already burned through cash reserves set aside for such natural disasters, but that plenty of money is available from surplus general funds.
While parts of the Southwest, particularly Southern California, still have three months of fire season left, Smurthwaite said, shorter days, declining temperatures and higher humidity will help curtail fires.
"That's almost like putting a little wet blanket over a fire," he said.
Firefighters in Northern California on Wednesday made progress in containing a huge wildfire that has burned dozens of homes and scorched about 38 square miles. It was 50 percent contained Wednesday morning.
The threat to homes dropped from 3,500 earlier this week to 260 residences, officials said.
Fire crews assessing the rural area determined Tuesday that 50 buildings had been destroyed since it was sparked by lightning Saturday. It was unclear when the structures burned and how many were homes.
More than 2,100 firefighters were battling the fire near several remote towns about 170 miles north of Sacramento.
Elsewhere in California, a large wildfire in Plumas National Forest continued to expand, helped by gusty winds.
The blaze, about 120 miles north of Sacramento, has consumed nearly 98 square miles since it started at the end of July and threatens about 900 homes. It was 37 percent contained Wednesday.
In Washington state, fire crews still hoped to fully contain a week-old wildfire that has destroyed 51 homes and 26 outbuildings and damaged at least six other homes, authorities said.
The fire, about 75 miles east of Seattle, has caused an estimated $8.3 million in property damage.
In south-central Idaho, authorities have spent more than $23 million fighting a fire near the towns of Pine and Featherville and another in a forest near the resort town of Stanley.
Those wildfires have each consumed about 150 square miles, and will not be extinguished for some time, Smurthwaite said.
"We expect to be managing them for weeks to come," he said.
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