A busy start to fire season means officials are already calling for backup.
Firefighting resources are being deployed at a level normally seen later in the year, as dozens of large, active wildfires have burned through more than 1.3 million acres across the West. Nearly 22,000 firefighters and other personnel are working to contain fast-spreading flames, and agencies and leaders are concerned firefighters could become exhausted well ahead of the hardest months of the season in late summer and early fall.
State leaders in Idaho and Oregon called on the National Guard this month as fire activity escalated. Firefighters from Maine, Pennsylvania and New Mexico are joining crews from Minnesota and Alaska to assist efforts in Idaho, where lightning storms on July 7 sparked multiple fires that have strained resources. And California Gov. Gavin Newsom sent firefighters to assist efforts along the Bootleg Fire in Oregon, currently the largest blaze in the country and the fourth-largest in the state since 1900.
This level of coordination and resource management is common for an entire fire season, but uncommon at this point in the year. Resource use is about a month ahead of schedule, said Jessica Gardetto, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management and the National Interagency Fire Center. Last week, the center upgraded its national preparedness level to five—the highest indicator it has to signal a great need for resources. It is the earliest the center has reached that level in a decade.
“It has started so early that we’re really worried about whether or not we’re going to have enough, and how tired they’re going to be even halfway through the season,” said John Bailey, a professor of silviculture and fire management at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, referring to firefighters and other personnel. “It’s a finite pool of people and energy, as well as money.”