Fire Resources Exhausted In The West, Military Called In To Action

Aug 19, 2015

Dozens of large wildfires are burning uncontained this week across several Western states. With so many fires, there are not nearly enough resources to go around.  Now, military personnel are being brought in to help fight fires.

Jeremy Sullens is with Boise’s National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) and his job is to help fire managers understand what parts of the country are most susceptible. For months he’s been focused on places like Oregon, Washington and Idaho. But for states in this region, Sullen says the story starts last winter.

“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 corridor of the U.S."

These conditions didn’t mean much until recent weeks when weather patterns changed in the area. A large storm system moving through the northwestern corner of the country brought a lot of lightning that ignited many of the fires,  Sullens says.

Because of the region’s receptive fuel beds prepped by the dry winter, that weather pattern caused fast-spreading fires in the Idaho and Oregon deserts. By late last week, lightning started destructive forest fires in Washington, Idaho and Montana.

As a result of all the activity, the nation’s firefighting response system is struggling to keep up. At NIFC, phones are ringing constantly, processing requests from fire managers on the front lines for things like personnel, fire engines and air tankers.

But at some point, the resources run out. Bill Fletcher is the man who has to deliver the bad news.

“I don’t think we’ve seen this level for nearly ten years,” says Fletcher.

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

“We’re at Preparedness Level 5, which is a reflection of national activity. It’s the highest level we have.”

The military is being called to help for the first time since 2006. Two hundred soldiers from Washington begin their training Wednesday and Canadian firefighters are already helping out.  Soon, personnel from Australia and New Zealand could 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 hand crews to work the front lines.

“You know, if we were the only fire in town, yes we would have more," says Day. "However this is just a very unique time that we’re in.”

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.  

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