| August 7,
Nearly 1 million acres are burning in 11 Western states. After a background report, Roger Erb, fire director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Nan Christianson, district ranger for the Bitteroot National Forest in Montana, discuss the nation's worst wildfire season in 50 years.
RAY SUAREZ: For Nevada and many other western states, this year's wildfire season is the worst in five decades. And there's little relief in sight: The immediate forecast for much of the West is for high winds and lightning, but little rain. Currently, 65 large fires are burning in 11 states, spanning 800,000 acres. So far this year, a total of four million acres have burned. That's twice the annual average. Unfortunately, the long, dry spell isn't expected to end until October. Typically, most wildfire seasons are over by June or July.
PARK OFFICIAL: It's a long-term reaction to a drought we had in the west, the tail end of a La Nina session which makes it unseasonably warmer and drier all summer long and into the fall.
RAY SUAREZ: In southwestern Colorado, authorities this weekend closed down the Mesa Verde National Park, home of the largest archeological site in North America. In California's Sequoia National Forest, firefighters have set backfires to contain the blaze, which is now threatening livestock. And in Utah and Nevada, authorities are battling the flames from the skies. In all, some 20,000 firefighters from the US and Canada are at work. Some are on 36-hour shifts. The total cost of the effort: $15 million a day.
DAVE FREELAND, US Forest Service: We're tired. Everybody's tired. We been trying to get fresh crews, but with all these fires going around the West, they're hard to come by.
RAY SUAREZ: To provide some relief, the US Army and Marines have sent more than 1,000 troops to the hardest-hit states. One of those is Idaho, where one of the nation's largest fires covers more than 100,000 acres. President Clinton visits the state tomorrow. He plans to greet some of the firefighters on the front lines.
|Active fire growth|
RAY SUAREZ: More information now from headquarters and out in the field.
Roger Erb is fire director for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. He
joins us from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho,
which is coordinating the federal and state response to the fire, and
Nan Christianson, district ranger for the Bitterroot National Forest
NAN CHRISTIANSON, District Ranger, Bitterroot National Forest: Those are fires that have started within the last week and are actively being fought.
RAY SUAREZ: And is there any progress to report or are you still facing rising numbers of acreage and square mileage involved in fire in your park?
NAN CHRISTIANSON: The fires are very active, and we're seeing a lot of fire growth. Yesterday was a very active day, and many of the fires increased by 10,000 or 15,000 acres, and we don't expect that to change in the near future. We've got real dry conditions, and we expect to be in this for a while.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, what kind of changes in the conditions could you
NAN CHRISTIANSON: Snow. Snow would be good. Even a fairly significant
amount of moisture would make a big difference, but that's not in the
|Lack of rain|
| RAY SUAREZ: Roger Erb, there are forest fires every summer
in the national forests and throughout the intermountain West. Why is
this year so particularly bad?
ROGER ERB, Fire Director, US Fish & Wildlife Service: Well, this year's bad from the standpoint that we've got so much of the West on fire at the same time. As an example, the Southwest would normally, if we can define normal anymore, have a monsoon season, and it's not occurred down there. So the resources that the Southwest has normally available to us are not available. And the lightning and amount of lightning that we've been getting and the storms just have kept our initial attack crews running, and we can't catch them all, but we've been catching quite a few of those.
RAY SUAREZ: So in a normal season, you'd be able to devote your attention to one, get that under control, and then go to another, rather than have to fight them all at once?
ROGER ERB: Well, from our level, we'd be devoting our attention to less geographic area of the western United States, I guess would be the way to say that.
RAY SUAREZ: Did you not have sufficient snow runoff? Has there been exceptionally short amounts of rain in the spring? Why is the forest so dry out there?
ROGER ERB: Well, it is... I can't speak for the whole West, but I know around this area, and I think other areas, we had a below-normal snow pack in a lot of areas, and when it melted this year, it just went completely off. It was not a slow melt. So nothing went into the soil and was not able to be absorbed into the trees and so forth. So a quick melt and then just the above-normal high that set in here as opposed to where it normally is, and the high temperatures, of course, have helped dry the fuel.
RAY SUAREZ: Nan Christianson, tell us a little about how you approach this thing when you look at a map of the entire park. What's the policy for where to go first, what to try to do first when you triage these things?
NAN CHRISTIANSON: Our first priority is public and firefighter safety, and that takes precedence over everything else. The second priority is protecting communities and structures, and we do that in cooperation with our local rural fire departments. And then the third priority is protecting the natural resources. So we look at those criteria as we prioritize where to put crews and where to put our resources.
RAY SUAREZ: In your particular park, are you a little luckier than some others in these 11 states in that you have fewer communities to try to avoid, that sort of thing?
NAN CHRISTIANSON: Pardon me?
RAY SUAREZ: Are you blessed a little bit by geography in your particular park because Montana's not a heavily populated state?
NAN CHRISTIANSON: We have... Our county's the largest or the fastest-growing county in Montana, and we have a lot of folks who are building their ideal homes back near the interface. We probably don't have the total number of populations that you might see in other western states, but we have a lot of homes and interface areas that need protecting.
RAY SUAREZ: So are there fires that you've just had to allow to continue to burn while you devoted your resources to keeping it from spreading to settled areas?
NAN CHRISTIANSON: We do have some fires that we have not been able to staff. We've chosen to place the resources in areas where we can do the most good to protect public safety and to try to protect the communities.
RAY SUAREZ: Roger Erb, are there some places in your area of responsibility that have been particularly tricky because of the number of people or the number of settled areas?
ROGER ERB: Well, our area of responsibility-- please understand, we don't do any on- the-ground fire fighting from here; it's a support role to the folks like Nan that are out there doing the work-- but our focus has been on community. Community protection when they're threatened is one of the high priorities, and so we'll try to move resources from one area to another as best we can to try to support the people on the ground that are doing that work.
RAY SUAREZ: And where have you felt the most acute need? Do you need more people? Do you need more material, more planes?
ROGER ERB: Well, we have about all we're going to get that we can manage right now. We've got roughly-- and this number runs up and down a little bit-- about 21,000 people in the field, and we can only manage and support so many crews, so many overhead teams, and so forth till we run out of our management structure, our people that are qualified and trained to do this kind of work, and we're bumping up against that. That's why we're doing some abnormal things, if you will, like getting Canadian resources into Montana to help out, talking with the Australians and the New Zealand folks and also with Mexico as far as what resources they may have to help us out. We're stretched. We're very, very, very stretched, and we have folks... resources cycling in and out, going off assignment, getting some rest, and we are in this for the long haul, 45 to 60 days at least, I'm sure. The only thing that might save us is if we have a hurricane bearing down on Missoula, Montana, might help out, but of course the likelihood of that, you know what that is.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Nan Christianson, when a crew rotates off a long stretch of firefighting, how long can they rest before they have to head back into the mountains again?
NAN CHRISTIANSON: If I understood your question, it was about the duration that firefighters can be out?
RAY SUAREZ: Uh-huh.
NAN CHRISTIANSON: We have a very specific rotation period. We have folks out for about 14 days, and then we make sure they go back to their home unit and get some rest. In this kind of a season, they're reassigned to other fires.
RAY SUAREZ: So you have...you have some people working in your area who have been kind of short sleep and fighting in some very dangerous conditions?
NAN CHRISTIANSON: Yes, sir.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, good luck to both of you. Nan Christianson, Roger Erb, thanks for joining us.
NAN CHRISTIANSON: Thank you.
ROGER ERB: Thank you.