Officials say U.S. wildfires are charring twice as many acres annually as they did 40 years ago, and the combination of persistent drought, record-breaking heat and increasing populations in or near wild areas is adding up to increasingly dangerous fires.
That point was driven home dramatically this week in Arizona, where a lethal blaze fueled by dry brush and shifting winds in excess of 40 miles per hour resulted in the worst firefighting tragedy in more than a decade.
At one point, the blaze advanced four miles in just 20 minutes. Firefighters had contained 80 percent of the blaze by Friday, but not before the flames resulted in a tragic loss of life.
The wildfire season of 2013 took a deadly turn this week as 19 firefighters were killed in the line of duty. The elite crew members were overtaken as a quick moving fire blazed near the central Arizona town of Yarnell.
In the deadliest single day for U.S. firefighters since 9/11 and the worst wildfire disaster in decades, nineteen members of Granite Mountain Hotshots perished.
Based in Prescott, Arizona at the city’s fire department, the specially trained crew would often hike for miles into the wilderness to build lines of protection between people and fires.
Mike Bracon, All Hazards Incident Management Team, AZ: “You know this fire was very radical in its behavior. The fuels were very dry, the relative humidity was low, the wind coming out of the south, it's turned around on us because of monsoon action this afternoon. That's what caused the deaths, it's the change and the radical behavior of the burning fuels. They were just caught up in a bad situation.”
The fire was caused from a lightning strike on Friday and blackened 2,000 acres in just two days. By week’s end, more than 13 square miles had been scorched and 600 firefighters were deployed in the battle.
In many cases residents escaped moments before the flames destroyed hundreds of homes.
Chuck Overmyer, Escaped Arizona Fire: “We had to drive through the flames to drive out of our gate. It was already that bad. Within two minutes, I'd say if we waited another two or three minutes, we wouldn't have gotten out of there. It was that fast coming in.”
Last year, wildfires charred more than 9 million acres. In the wake of what was the worst wildfire season in U.S. history, the Obama administration is proposing a 31 percent cut in funding for the government's central fire prevention program.
This week, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators from the region urged the Obama Administration to prioritize wildfire prevention. The coalition favors preserving funds for programs that clear potentially hazardous dead trees and brush to fund efforts to fight the increasingly destructive blazes.
Eight of the most destructive wildfire years in U.S. history have been since 2000. Officials say at least 65 million acres of federal land — an area larger than Oregon — is at risk for fires. Drought, rising temperatures and an increasing number of people residing in heavily timbered areas are expected to increase that risk.
One factor contributing to the wildfires, is recording breaking heat.
The mercury hit a recording breaking 129 degrees in Death Valley, California Sunday, setting an all-time mark for the highest temperature ever recorded in the month of June, anywhere in the United States.
Las Vegas finished last month with a high of 117 en route to that city’s hottest June on record.
And what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas this time as Phoenix endured a four-day stretch of temperatures above 115 degrees.
While the tinder-dry conditions are readily apparent in the latest Drought Monitor, this week’s survey revealed continued improvement elsewhere. Currently, 50.8 percent of the contiguous U.S. is gripped in drought. That’s the smallest area since January of 2012. And last year at this time, more than three-quarters of the nation was locked in the worst drought in half a century.
Nevertheless, most of America’s row crops are in average condition. But cattle grazing areas --- particularly in the southwest, are withering. In Arizona and New Mexico, 99 percent of the pastures and rangeland are rated fair to very poor.