The US West had a snowy winter, so why the fiery summer? A sign board at the McKenzie River Ranger Station makes clear the fire danger level in the Willamette National Forest, Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017 in Blue River, Ore. Several fires are burning in the area. (Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard via AP/Genna Martin /seattlepi.com via AP)
The US West had a snowy winter, so why the fiery summer?
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Acrid yellow smoke clogs the skies of major Western U.S. cities. A human-caused fire in the Columbia River Gorge rains ash on Portland, Oregon. And a century-old backcountry chalet burns to the ground in Montana's Glacier National Park.

Wildfires are chewing across dried-out Western forests and grassland. This puts 2017 on track to be among the worst fire seasons in a decade.

A snowy winter across much of the West raised hopes that 2017 wouldn't be a dried-out, fire-prone year. But a hot, dry summer spoiled that.

Here's what happened, and how bad things are:

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

Heavy snows last winter brought relief from a long, brutal drought across much of the West. They produced a lush growth of natural grasses. It was thicker and taller than many vegetation experts had ever seen. But the weather turned very hot very fast in the spring. The snow melted much faster than expected.

All the grass that grew high dried out, and so did forests at higher elevations. This left plenty of fuel for wildfires, said Bryan Henry. He is a manager at the National Interagency Fire Center. It coordinates wildfire-fighting.

Summer lightning storms then dumped less rain than usual and weather conditions kept the humidity low. This created a natural tinderbox in many states.

"It was kind of a bad combination of things," Henry said.


HOW BIG ARE THE FIRES?

By Thursday, more than 76 large fires were burning in nine Western states. This included 21 in Montana and 18 in Oregon. That was according to the interagency fire center.

So far this year, wildfires have burned more than 12,500 square miles nationwide. In the past decade, only two years were worse at this point in the wildfire season: 2015 and 2012.

For all of 2015, a record 15,800 square miles burned. In 2012, 14,600 square miles were scorched.

WHAT ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE?

It's making things worse for fires, said Jonathan Overpeck. He is the dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan.

Hotter and drier weather is a symptom of human-caused climate change. That's making fires worse by leaving forests and other vegetation more flammable.

"It's not of course playing the only role," he said. "There's natural variability at work."

"Humans are contributing to an ever-increasing degree to wildfires in the West. They emit greenhouse gases and warm the planet and warm the West," Overpeck said.


TREE-EATING BEETLES.

Two dozen species of beetles have killed trees on nearly 85,000 square miles in the Western U.S. since 2000. They're responsible for about 20 percent of the 6.3 billion standing dead trees across the West. That's according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Researchers disagree on whether forests with beetle-killed trees are more likely to burn, or if they burn differently. This is compared to healthier forests.

Any standing dead tree can crash down, posing hazards for firefighters. They must adjust their tactics to avoid them.

WHO'S FIGHTING THE FIRES?

More than 26,000 people are fighting the fires. They are backed by more than 200 helicopters and 1,800 trucks. They are also backed by 28 air tankers. These drop water and fire-retardant slurry. Three of those tankers are military C-130 planes.

The military has also assigned surveillance aircraft and at least 200 active-duty soldiers to fight fires. The National Guard has been called out in at least four states. Those states include California, Montana, Oregon and Washington.
"We're stretched thin," said Jennifer Jones. She is a spokeswoman for the interagency fire center.

Sometimes the center gets requests for more crews and equipment than it has, so "fire managers on the ground are adjusting their tactics and strategies to accommodate the resources they can get," Jones said.

"We don't pack up our tents and go home."

HOW BAD ARE THE LOSSES?

Nine firefighters have died and 35 have been hurt this year. That’s according to the national Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. Two of the deaths came during training.

Fires have destroyed an estimated 500 single-family homes and 32 commercial buildings this year, the interagency fire center said.

Janet Ruiz of the Insurance Information Institute sees a hopeful trend in fewer houses lost to wildfires in recent years. Ruiz credits better-equipped firefighters. And she credits homeowners who take steps to minimize the danger such as clearing trees away from buildings and installing screens over dwelling openings. These keep embers out.

"It's a better-informed public and fire services better able to fight fire," she said.

WHAT ABOUT ALL THE SMOKE?

"It's unusually bad," said Henry, of the National Interagency Fire Center.

Smoke is lingering from northern California and central Nevada to Montana. The air over parts of northern California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington is rated very unhealthy on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's AirNow website. It was not clear whether sources other than fires were contributing.

The air over the towns of Cottonwood and Porthill, Idaho, were listed as hazardous, the worst of six categories.

Fires spew particulates into the air, which are linked to premature death and cancer. They can make asthma and chronic lung disease worse, said Dr. Norman H. Edelman. He is a senior science adviser to the American Lung Association.

"It certainly is bad enough to cause symptoms in people with chronic lung disease but also normal people," he said.

A volcanic eruption is probably the only thing that pumps more particulates into the atmosphere at once than a fire, he said.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
What factors are contributing to the wildfires?
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COMMENTS (8)
  • Cynthiat-orv
    9/19/2017 - 02:24 p.m.

    Its sad that there are wild fires that destroy people's homes.I think that if people don't want wild fires that they start trying to water forest's on a daily basis so that the tree's and grass don't dry and cause the fire's .

  • kiannar-cel
    9/20/2017 - 12:03 p.m.

    Wildfires are highly dangerous to everyone. The some o the many factors that contribute to them make people gasp. Beetles that eat trees are responsible and are hazards to firefighters working to extinguish those fires.The biggest factor responsible for wildfires is climate change. Having the carbon dioxide and other emissions released in the air, make the air warmer than previous years without factories and cars. After reading this article, students understand that people loose their lives, houses, and other possessions to this deadly fire.

  • graceh-cel
    9/21/2017 - 11:47 a.m.

    The author makes the intensity and how much of a problem the fires have become. As the article states, the fires are due mostly to the weather. It seems that we can not have a perfect season of winter to water the crops without it drying out the plants in the end and making the forests at a great risk to catch fire. As the fires became more prominent, so did the dangers of others lives. The tree eating beetles also present themselves as a large contributor to the fires as dead trees are more flamable.

  • EthanM-eic
    9/28/2017 - 09:45 a.m.

    That's terrible. I'm glad we don't have wildfires in Nebraska. It would be awful to lose your home and your health to a wildfire.

  • Scotta-eic
    9/28/2017 - 10:33 a.m.

    It's bad that the forest is getting burned to the ground. Imagine all the cabins that might be out in the forest.

  • jordanw-orv
    9/28/2017 - 01:41 p.m.

    I wandering if any fires were set on purpose or they are all real fires. Also in the article it talks about the smoke so I'm wandering if they are trying to get rid of it somehow?

  • jtd-lew
    9/29/2017 - 12:14 p.m.

    Very interesting article about fires. It gave me a lot of information about wildfires and how to prevent them. I recommend reading this because you can learn a lot from it.

  • maryg-ris
    10/16/2017 - 12:31 p.m.

    This is sad because people are loosing there animals clothing and sometimes loved ones. So who ever is starting these needs to stop

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