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Western Wildfires Continue To Grow At Record Rates


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

In California, Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in three rural counties. There, a rash of wildfires has consumed more than 60,000 acres. Across the west, 2012 is shaping up to be one of the worst fire seasons on record at least by one measure. Wildfires have charred almost 7 million acres this year, an area larger than the state of Maryland. And fire experts say at the current pace, more acres will burn than ever before.

NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Across California, there are currently a dozen wildfires burning, most of them in the northern part of the state and most of them sparked by lightning igniting dry grass and timber in remote areas. It's early in the fire season and officials already have seen more fires this year than the average, says Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

DANIEL BERLANT: This year, we've seen a significant increase in the number of fires that we've responded to. In fact, this year to date, we've responded to over 1,400 more wildfires than we did for the same time period last year. And that increased activity all has to do with the fact that the grass, the brush, the timber is tinder dry and is able to burn so quickly.

GONZALES: If there's good news, it's that a major blaze near Redding called the Ponderosa Fire, which had claimed about 38 square miles, is now 50 percent contained. In Central Washington, residents around the agricultural town of Ellensburg are still trying to put their lives back together now that the Taylor Fire is about 90 percent contained. The fire burned more than 23,000 acres and destroyed more than 50 homes. The flames came upon homes and ranches there too fast to save the livestock.


GONZALES: At the Ellensburg Rodeo Grounds, as many as 300 stray horses and pigs were collected for safekeeping. Mark Kinsel is the head vet of the rescue operation.

MARK KINSEL: A lot of the people that were in harm's way were having a hard time leaving their animals behind. And I heard stories that people thought they were OK. And then five minutes later, the flames were in their front yard, and they're running for the fence and pliers and cutting them, and jumping into their car as they watched their house go up.

GONZALES: Across the country, there are 37 large fires with new ones reported in Montana, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Minnesota and Oregon. Yet, according to data collected by the Interagency Fire Center, we are seeing far fewer fires this year than the average, but they are burning more acres. For example, earlier this year, Oregon and New Mexico saw their largest fires in recent memory, and Colorado suffered its most destructive fire.

Bill Kaage is a wildfire expert with the agency in Idaho.

BILL KAAGE: And talking to meteorologists, fuels experts, they think a lot of that is because we haven't had a large snowpack that's mushed down the fuel, so to speak. And so the dry material that's been in place for one, two, three years - 'cause we haven't had a lot of large fires - is readily available.

GONZALES: Add in lightning and careless people, throw in some wind, and then it's off to the races with big fires, says Kaage.

Back here in California, firefighting officials are welcoming the help of the National Guard called out this week and the announcement that FEMA money will be used to fight the fires. They are also holding their breath as the worst of the fire season usually comes in September and October.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.