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Dry Conditions, Lighting Contribute To Numerous Western Wildfires


Here's one measure of how out of control wildfires are right now across the American West. Enough people to fill a small city, some 30,000, are fighting these fires. It's just not enough people. They also don't have enough equipment. And now the military is being called in. Scott Graf from Boise State Public Radio reports on what they're facing.

SCOTT GRAF, BYLINE: This story starts last winter, says Jeremy Sullens.

JEREMY SULLENS: Essentially what we had was a very dry condition where we ended up with little precipitation and not much snowpack really across much of the northwestern quarter of the U.S. - really across most of the western U.S.

GRAF: Sullens is with the National Interagency Fire Center here in Boise. His job is to help fire managers understand what parts of the country are most susceptible to fire. And for months, he's been focused on places like Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Then last week, the weather pattern in those areas changed.

SULLENS: What we saw was a large storm system moved through the northwestern corner of the country over several days and put a lot of lightning - so a lot of ignition - on the ground. And we've seen a lot of fires due to the very receptive fuel bed.

GRAF: This is what the weather pattern caused. Fires in the Idaho and Oregon deserts grew extremely quickly. By late last week, lightning started destructive forest fires in Washington, Idaho and Montana. Earlier fires in California continue to burn. As a result, the nation's firefighting response system is struggling to keep up.

LOIS: Coordination Center, this is Lois (ph). I believe so, but let me transfer you up to the equipment desk, and they'll be able to tell you for sure. OK, one second.

GRAF: Phones have been ringing a lot lately here in the National Interagency Coordination Center also in Boise. This is the place where requests from fire managers on the front lines end up, orders for things like personnel, fire engines and air tankers. And more and more, those requests are being turned down. Bill Fletcher is the man who has to deliver the bad news.

BILL FLETCHER: I don't think we've seen this level for about nearly 10 years.

GRAF: Nearly 30,000 people are spread across the West fighting fires this week. Fletcher says if he had 2,000 more, they would be put to work immediately.

FLETCHER: We're at a Preparedness Level 5, which is a reflection of national activity. It's the highest level that we have.

GRAF: The military is being called to help for the first time since 2006. Two-hundred soldiers from Washington begin their training today. Canadian firefighters are already helping out, and soon, personnel from Australia and New Zealand may be added to the fight. The shortages mean people like Bea Day are doing the best they can with what they have. Day is helping organize the fight against the Canyon Creek Complex in central Oregon - a series of fires that have burned dozens of homes. She wishes she had more handcrews to work the front lines.

BEA DAY: You know, if we were the only fire in town, yes, we would have more. However, this is just a very unique time that we're in.

GRAF: Day says when resources are in short supply, managers have to prioritize. Protect life first, they say, then private property and things like roads and power lines. The weather has calmed down, and the number of new fires has dropped off the last several days. But with the end of the fire season still weeks away, experts say resources are likely to remain sparse. For NPR News, I'm Scott Graf in Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.