Record wildfires ravage 7 million acres

3:03 PM, Aug 22, 2012   |    comments
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Wildfires have charred nearly 7 million acres so far this year -- destroying more acreage across the USA in the first eight months of any year since accurate records began in the early 1960s, say federal fire officials.

This is an area larger than Maryland. The combination of the very hot summer and the worst drought since the Dust Bowl are providing fuel for the fires, says Ken Frederick, a public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Land Management at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. He says that as of Tuesday, 39 large fires are burning, almost all in the West.

Wildfires earlier this year have included the largest in Oregon since the 1840s, the largest fire on record in New Mexico, and the most destructive fire in Colorado's history, the National Climatic Data Center reports. Colorado has been particularly hard hit this year by wildfires: The state's most destructive fire this year destroyed hundreds of homes and led to almost half a billion dollars in damages, the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association reported.

As of the end of July, eight firefighters have died this year in wildfire incidents, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. With widespread drought conditions, and the latest forecasts calling for little drought relief over the next two months, 2012 is likely to surpass 2006 as the worst fire year in U.S. history, according to Weather Underground meteorologist Jeff Masters.

In total, the fire center reports that more than 9.8 million acres burned in 2006. A total of 3 million acres have burned just since mid-July this year, Masters says. Frederick cautions that although this year may be above-average for total acres burned, it is well below average in the number of total fires.

Also, by another metric, homes burned, this year is still below-average. "We have seen a significant number of homes burn in wildfires this year -- 1,859 -- but again, we are not into the realm of historic numbers," Frederick says. "In 1991, a single fire in Oakland, Calif., burned more than 3,000 homes.

Thousands of homes burned last year in Texas wildfires." Most of the worst years for wildfires have all been in the past decade. Are we seeing a preview of things to come?

A study published in June in the peer-reviewed journal Ecosphere reported that climate change is widely expected to disrupt future wildfire patterns around the world, with some regions, such as the western U.S., seeing more and more frequent fires within the next 30 years. However, as Frederick notes, wildfires remain a natural and needed part of the forest ecosystem.

Fires can kill off diseased trees and kill harmful insects, and also help some species of trees (such as the lodgepole pine) propagate by helping to open up the trees' pine cones.

By Doyle Rice USA TODAY

USA TODAY

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