By Jenny Jin
On August 4th, nine new wildfires were reported in the Western United States, and many of the active fires in California displayed an extreme increase in fire coverage.
Since the beginning of 2021, the West has been suffering from wildfires. The United States grapples with many wildfires every year, but this year, the amount is exponentially larger, with 38,707 fires covering 3,361,159 acres. Among these fires, 100 are still active, according to the website of the National Interagency Fire Center.
In July, several large wildfires occurred on a destructive scale. The Bootleg Fire, which started in Southern Oregon on July 6, is the largest wildfire to date in the United States, and it has covered more than 400,000 acres already. It has demonstrated what the National Wildlife Coordinating Group calls “Extreme Fire Behavior.” This behavior describes erratic blazes which spread rapidly and are very hard for firefighters to control. Attempts to manage the fire were unsuccessful, and the fire forced firefighting personnel to retreat.
Meanwhile, small fire-whirls, whirlwinds of flaming debris and burnt ash, were frequently observed. Neil Lareau, a wildfire behavior researcher at the University of Nevada, believes that a fire tornado with a potential wind speed higher than 65mph has likely already been created. The situation is so severe that the area’s natural atmosphere and wind behavior have been disrupted.
“The fire is so large and generates so much energy and extreme heat that it’s changing the weather. Normally the weather predicts what the fire will do. In this case, the fire is predicting what the weather will do,” said Marcus Kauffman, a spokesman for the state forestry department.
With all these challenges, Joe Hessel, the incident commander for the forestry department, said that it is unlikely to contain the Bootleg Fire in a short period of time due to the severity of the fire.
“This fire is a real challenge, and we are looking at sustained battle for the foreseeable future,” shared Hessel.
Another large, active fire is the Dixie Fire in California that started on July 14, burning more than 320,000 acres. It has been the largest fire in California this year. On the evening of August 4th, it destroyed another town –Greenville, CA– destroying 75 percent of the structures in the town.
State officials quickly released evacuation orders that evening; however, many residents refused to do so, making it difficult for the firefighters to contain the fire. The crews have been trying their best to bring the fire under control, but it has been spreading at an unusually high speed.
“These are not the normal fires anymore,” Jake Cagle, an operations section chief for California Incident Management said. “It’s just intense fire behavior, and it’s not what we’re used to.”
While the situation is challenging, and the fires are going to last longer, federal forest officials are creating strategies to combat the current condition. According to Randy Moore, the US Forest Service Fire Chief, the US Forest Service will no longer be using the “let it burn” strategy for wildfires, and will prioritize extinguishing wildfires that could pose a threat to public safety.
"The 2021 fire year is different from any before," Moore wrote in a memo. "In short, we are in a national crisis. At times like these, we must anchor to our core values, particularly safety."