The Forgotten Disaster in the American West

While hurricanes grip the nation's attention, wildfires ravage an area the size of Maryland

Hurricane Harvey ravaged southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana, and Hurricane Irma is in the process of pummeling the entire state of Florida. News headlines have been flooded with ongoing coverage of those two natural disasters. But while most of the nation’s attention remains focused on the pair of storms, devastating wildfires scouring the West have remained largely outside the national consciousness.

Wildfires have ravaged an area the collective size of the state of Maryland in recent weeks, and 2017 is on track to become the worst year for wildfires the U.S. has witnessed in a decade. More than 8 million acres have succumbed to the flames so far — nearly twice the annual national average of 5.5 million acres.

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After experiencing an excruciatingly hot and dry summer, nine states suffered at least 172 wildfires last week, including 78 that spanned more than 100 forested acres or 300 grassland acres each, which the National Interagency Fire Center dubbed to be “large.” Montana endured approximately 21 of these “large” wildfires while Oregon endured 18.

Only two years in the past decade experienced worse wildfire devastation at the same time of year: 2012 and 2015. So far in 2017, seven firefighters have died in their efforts to contain the mass conflagration ravishing the West, and 35 others have been seriously injured. More than 26,000 firefighters are currently engaged in containment efforts, supported by 200 helicopters, 1,800 trucks, and 28 air tankers, according to the Associated Press.

Approximately 200 active-duty soldiers are manning surveillance aircraft across the West, and the National Guard has been called to reinforce containment efforts in at least four states — California, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

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“We’re stretched thin,” Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center told AP, noting that the center is receiving far more requests for aid and equipment than it can handle this year.

This emergency has forced fire managers on the ground to “[adjust] their tactics and strategies to accommodate the resources they can get,” Jones added.

To make matters even worse, thick and persistent smoke has been plaguing portions of California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

The devastating damage has inflicted taxpayers with staggering costs. The U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Interior reported spending more than $2.1 billion in its containment and recovery efforts thus far in 2017 — approximately the same amount the two departments spent throughout all of 2015, the most expensive firefighting year to date.

In addition to the two departments, individual states have spent millions more. Montana, in particular, has already exhausted all $50 million of its 2017 firefighting fund.

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But national attention remains elsewhere. While Texas, Louisiana and Florida begin the years-long process of recovering from the two record-shattering hurricanes, the plight of the nine states that have been ravaged by wildfires remains largely on the back burner.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators across the nine Western states sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) Thursday requesting federal funds to aid state efforts to contain and recover from the fires. In particular, the senators asked Sens. McConnell and Schumer to include wildfire-fighting funding in any future Harvey and Irma relief packages.

“Right now, we are in the middle of a natural disaster across the American West: the burning of over 7.65 million acres of forests,” the senators wrote. “Full containment is not expected for months. It will take homeowners and businesses years to recover.”

“Congress must fix the way the government funds wildfire fighting now,” the senators continued. “We stand ready to work with our colleagues in a bipartisan way in Congress to do everything we can to ensure the victims of Hurricane Harvey get the assistance they need. As we work to assist Texas and Louisiana on the road to recovery, please do not forget about wildfires — the natural disaster currently raging through the West.”

(photo credit, homepage and article images: Jean Beaufort)

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