Firefighters put together for extreme forest fires within the drought-stricken western United States
Firefighters work to stop the Loma fire from spreading outside Via del Cielo in Santa Barbara, California, USA. This image was published on May 21, 2021.
Mike Eliason | Santa Barbara County Fire Department | Reuters
From igniting controlled burns to removing vegetation, U.S. firefighters are massively preparing for a wildfire year that they expect could be even worse than last year's record season.
Fires broke out earlier this year, scorching the West as it grapples with the worst drought in the recorded history of the US Drought Monitor. Hot and dry temperatures in the preseason, due to climate change, together with a high supply of dry bushes have prepared the states for more severe and more frequent fires each year.
In Arizona, firefighters are already fighting two massive fires fueled by hot temperatures and gusty winds. Conditions are so dry that officials said firefighters fighting the fire accidentally started new fires that were started by their equipment.
California, suffering from droughts and depleted water reservoirs, also had an early start to the season. A fire in May forced the evacuation of hundreds of people in western Los Angeles. Five of the six largest fires in the state's history occurred last year and burned more than 4 million acres.
"The fire season has been extended to a full year of fire in many parts of the country," said Bill Avey, national fire and aviation director for the USDA Forest Service.
"Managing a year-long season is becoming increasingly difficult for the USDA and the entire forest fire management community," Avey said.
Clouds of smoke rise from a flame as wildfire rages in Arizona, United States on June 7, 2021, in this image from social media.
Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management | Reuters
As the fire season grows longer, states face the growing challenge of adequately preparing and responding to a year-on-year increase in disasters fueled by climate change.
California will have its largest fire department ever this year and has already completed dozen of fuel-reduction projects such as controlled burns. The state's largest utility company, PG&E, has also announced it could turn off more electricity this year to help reduce the risk of fire in Northern California.
And earlier this month, Governor Gavin Newsom called for a record $ 2 billion budget for forest fire preparation and an expansion of the aircraft fleet to fight the fires.
California has responded to more than 2,875 forest fires that burned more than 16,800 acres since early 2021, according to Alisha Herring, a communications officer for the state fire department Cal Fire.
"This is a significant increase in both fires and hectares compared to 2020," said Herring.
A sign will be posted next to an empty space on May 27, 2021 in Chowchilla, California.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images
This year, the Forest Service has 15,000 firefighters and personnel ready to put out fires, as well as up to 34 air tankers, more than 200 helicopters and 900 engines for an unprecedented season, Avey said.
Last month, President Joe Biden said the Federal Emergency Management Agency will double the funds available to prepare cities and states for climate disasters such as fires and hurricanes from $ 500 million in 2020 to $ 1 billion this year.
But the increase in FEMA funding was less than what some disaster management experts argue to prepare for weather events. According to the White House, there were 22 disasters in the United States last year, each with more than a billion US dollars in record losses.
"Now is the time to prepare for the busiest time of year for disasters in America," said the president after a briefing at FEMA headquarters.
Hilary Franz, Washington state commissioner for public land, said the state is preparing for a particularly heavy fire season by securing additional air resources through treaties and regional and national agreements.
Almost 85% of forest fires are due to human activity, including unsupervised debris fires, cigarettes, power tools, and arson. The risk is increased as more and more people build in wilderness areas at risk of fire. Experts have urged federal officials to better manage forests and city or state building codes that require refractory materials to be used in house construction.
"The vast majority of forest fires are caused by human activity," said Franz. "The more people practice fire protection and avoid starting fires outdoors, the better our chances of avoiding a devastating forest fire season."