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West U.S. wildfires are so extreme that they’re creating lightning, fire whirls

More than 80 large fires are burning in 13 states across the U.S. currently, impacting nearly 1.3 million acres. One of the worst remains in Southern Oregon — the Bootleg Fire. It has been burning for two weeks and has already scorched an area a third of the size of Rhode Island. Carrie Bilbao with the National Interagency Fire Center joins William Brangham with the latest on the fires.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The wildfire season in the U.S. West and British Columbia is worsening, making it ever more difficult for over 20,000 firefighters to do their jobs. Windy weather, lightning strikes and triple-digit temperatures in states like Montana are fueling the fires even further.

    Human-caused climate change and a longstanding drought create an earlier and more intense season.

    William Brangham has the latest.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, more than 80 fires are currently burning across 13 states right now. It's affecting over a million acres.

    One of the worst blazes is a megafire in Southern Oregon, the Bootleg Fire. It's been burning for two weeks. It's one of the largest in Oregon's history and is growing by several miles each day. It's already burned in area a third the size of Rhode Island.

    Carrie Bilbao is with the National Interagency Wildfire Center, which tracks all of this. And she joins me from Boise, Idaho.

    Thank you very much for being here. I know you're very, very busy.

    This may seem self-evident to you, but can you explain how the heat and this ongoing drought makes it harder to do your job, both in terms of what the fires do, but then also for the firefighters themselves?

  • Carrie Bilbao:

    Sure.

    This year, we have experienced his ongoing drought, as you mentioned, and the extensive heat conditions, which dries the fuels. And we're seeing extreme fire behavior at the higher elevations a lot sooner than we would normally see it.

    And so we're looking at being about a month ahead of where we would normally be. If you look at last year, we were at preparedness level five in August. And that's when the whole Northwest went off, historical fires there. We're seeing it again now, where we're just a month earlier with the large fire activity.

    And so that makes it extremely difficult, just with the firefighters as well, making sure they're not getting too overextended with heat, making sure they have the need — or what they need to keep them going.

  • William Brangham:

    You mentioned extreme fire behavior happening earlier.

    For a layperson, what is extreme fire behavior?

  • Carrie Bilbao:

    Our predictive services, meteorologists this morning had mentioned on the Bootleg Fire, for instance, and the Dixie Fire, they were seeing pyrocumulus clouds actually making their own weather with lightning.

  • William Brangham:

    The fire is burning so hot that it creates its own weather pattern directly above the fire itself?

  • Carrie Bilbao:

    It is not just the heat, but it's just all of the vegetation it's consuming, so it is drawing that moisture out, creating that — those large clouds and lightning.

    We saw, I guess pyro-tornadoes, or — that they were talking about last year, like fire whirls last year on fires that just create these intense conditions and winds. And, with thunderstorms, generally, we see erratic winds, and can push the fire in all directions.

  • William Brangham:

    You had touched on the Bootleg Fire.

    We have seen that this fire has been growing by miles each day. Do you have any sense as to whether or not that could be contained and when that might happen?

  • Carrie Bilbao:

    At this point, we don't.

    It's — we look at the weather. That determines how fire season is going, and it also determines when fire season is going to end. And everything we're seeing in the outlook doesn't look good for the next couple months. It looks like we're in this for the long haul.

  • William Brangham:

    You mentioned the importance of weather, obviously.

    Rain would be ideal, but I understand the Western forecast is for dry lightning…

  • Carrie Bilbao:

    Right.

  • William Brangham:

    … which has got to make everyone in the center incredibly nervous, given the conditions out there.

  • Carrie Bilbao:

    Yes.

    And we're looking at, when those types of things happen, we're kind of more on high alert with fire management, and looking at where we can preposition resources, have them ready. They may be, like, extended hour for initial attack.

    When those fires occur, we want to get them out quickly, because we are dealing with these other large fires.

  • William Brangham:

    I know there is often sort of international support from bordering countries. Are you having — are you getting that this year as well?

  • Carrie Bilbao:

    We have looked into it.

    And the one concern is, with Canada, they are at preparedness level five as well. You have probably heard reports of fires there starting early as well. So, we do have partners in Mexico. Australia, and New Zealand generally help us out, but it doesn't look like they are going to be able to supply resources this year. And so then we look at potentially turning to the military.

  • William Brangham:

    Wow.

    All right, Carrie Bilbao of the National Interagency Fire Center, thank you very much for being here. And good luck out there.

  • Carrie Bilbao:

    Thank you. Stay safe.

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