APTOPIX Pacific Northwest Wildfires

Boats are partially obscured by smoke from a wildfire at a marina on Detroit Lake burned by the Beachie Creek Fire, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in Detroit, Ore. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Justin Silvera came off the fire lines in Northern California after a grueling 36 straight days battling wildfires and evacuating residents ahead of the flames. Before that, he and his crew had worked for 20 days, followed by a three-day break.

Silvera, a 43-year-old battalion chief with Cal Fire, California's state firefighting agency, said he's lost track of the blazes he's fought this year. He and his crew have sometimes been on duty for 64 hours at a stretch, their only rest coming in 20-minute catnaps.

"I've been at this 23 years, and by far this is the worst I've seen," Silvera said before bunking down at a motel for 24 hours. After working in Santa Cruz County, his next assignment was to head north to attack wildfires near the Oregon border.

His exhaustion reflects the situation up and down the West Coast fire lines: This year's blazes have taxed the human, mechanical and financial resources of the nation's wildfire fighting forces to an extraordinary degree. And half of the fire season is yet to come. Heat, drought and a strategic decision to attack the flames early combined with the coronavirus to put a historically heavy burden on fire teams.

"There's never enough resources," said Silvera, one of nearly 17,000 firefighters in California. "Typically with Cal Fire we're able to attack — air tankers, choppers, dozers. We're good at doing that. But these conditions in the field, the drought, the wind, this stuff is just taking off. We can't contain one before another erupts."

Washington State Forester George Geissler says there are hundreds of unfulfilled requests for help throughout the West. Agencies are constantly seeking firefighters, aircraft, engines and support personnel.

Fire crews have been summoned from at least nine states and other countries, including Canada and Israel. Hundreds of agreements for agencies to offer mutual assistance have been maxed out at the federal, state and local levels, he said.

"We know that there's really nothing left in the bucket," Geissler said. "Our sister agencies to the south in California and Oregon are really struggling."

Demand for firefighting resources has been high since mid-August, when fire officials bumped the national preparedness level to critical, meaning at least 80% of crews were already committed to fighting fires, and there were few personnel and little equipment to spare.

Because of the extreme fire behavior, "you can't say for sure having more resources would make a difference," said Carrie Bilbao, a spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

Andy Stahl, a forester who runs Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, an advocacy group in Oregon, said it would have been impossible to stop some of the most destructive blazes, a task he compared to "dropping a bucket of water on an atomic bomb."

But Stahl contends the damage could have been less if government agencies were not so keen to put out every blaze. By stamping out smaller fires and those that ignite during wetter months, Stahl said officials have allowed fuels to build up, setting the stage for bigger fires during times of drought and hot, windy weather.

That's been exacerbated this year by the coronavirus pandemic, which prompted U.S. Forest Service Chief Vickie Christiansen to issue a directive in June to fight all fires aggressively, reversing a decades-long trend of allowing some to burn. The idea was to minimize large concentrations of firefighters by extinguishing blazes quickly.

Fighting the flames from the air was key to the strategy, with 35 air tankers and 200 helicopters being used, Forest Service spokesperson Kaari Carpenter said.

Yet by Aug. 30, following the deaths of some firefighters, including four aviators, and several close calls, fire officials in Boise warned that long-term fatigue was setting in. They called for a "tactical pause" so fire commanders could reinforce safe practices.

Tim Ingalsbee, a member of the advocacy group Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, said the June directive from Christiansen returned the forest service to a mindset prevalent for much of the last century that focused on putting out fires as quickly as possible. He said allowing more fires to burn when they are not threatening life or property would free up firefighters for the most dangerous blazes.

With no end in sight to the pandemic, Ingalsbee worried the focus on aggressively attacking every fire could prove lasting.

"More crews, more air tankers, more engines and dozers still can't overcome this powerful force of nature," he said. "The crews are beat up and fatigued and spread thin, and we're barely halfway through the traditional fire season."

Cal Fire's roughly 8,000 personnel have been fighting blazes from the Oregon border to the Mexico border, repeatedly bouncing from blaze to blaze, said Tim Edwards, president of the union for Cal Fire, the nation's second largest firefighting agency.

"We're battle-hardened, but it seems year after year, it gets tougher, and at some point in time we won't be able to cope. We'll reach a breaking point," said Edwards, a 25-year veteran.

The immediate dangers of the fires are compounded by worries about COVID in camp and at home.

Firefighters "see all this destruction and the fatigue, and then they're getting those calls from home, where their families are dealing with school and child care because of COVID. It's stressing them out, and we have to keep their heads in the game," he said.

COVID also has limited the state's use of inmate fire crews — either because of early inmate releases to prevent outbreaks in prisons or because many are under quarantine in those prisons, both Berland and Geissler said.

Aside from the human toll, the conflagrations in Colorado and Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, and now California and the Pacific Northwest have cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

California alone has spent $529 million since July 1 on wildfires, said Daniel Berlant, assistant deputy director of Cal Fire. By comparison, the state spent $691 million the entire fiscal year that ended June 30. The U.S. government will reimburse most state costs for the biggest disasters.

Back in the field, Silvera and his crew saved two people at the beginning of their 26-day duty tour. The two hikers encountered the crew after the firefighters themselves were briefly trapped while trying to save the headquarters building at Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

"We got in a bad spot, and there were a few hours there we didn't know if we'd make it," Silvera said. "Those people found us, and we wouldn't have been in there."

"That's what you sign up for."

(7) comments

Desert Dweller

It's a "La Nina" pattern this year

Dr. Zaius

Cliff Mass, a UW meteorology prof who is definitely not a liberal, has explained how rising temperatures will affect climate change in the PNW. It’s all about sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean -- similar to the El Nino/La Nina thing even anti-science climate change deniers know about.

Warmer than previously “normal” temperature areas alter the path of the jet stream. The jet stream at our latitude flows rather flat if the Pacific is normal or cool west of us, pushing storms that soak Seattle and bring moisture to dryland farms in EWA. If it flows north of us, we’re warmer, and if it flows south of us we’re colder, because the jet stream here divides arctic and equatorial air. Sound familiar?

If the Pacific develops a “blob” (what Mass calls it) of warm surface water west of us the jet stream oscillates north and south. Warmer water equals bigger, longer-lasting blobs, meaning larger, longer lasting oscillations in the jet stream. This creates more weather extremes -- cold arctic air if the oscillation trough is below us, warm or hot equatorial air if the jet stream peaks above us up in the Yukon.

Storms also become more severe because a: warmer overall temperatures increase sea surface evaporation at mid-latitude and b: when the jet stream makes big oscillations, storms can pull enormous moisture out of the warm southern ocean and/or pull super cold air out of the Arctic.

Mass and other meteorologists have modeled what the global warming trend means for our area and it’s more aggressive oscillations in the jet stream with fewer seasons featuring the previously normal flat jet stream.

Regarding the fires: Enormous fires are the historical norm for the PNW -- nobody’s alive to remember when there was nobody to put them out. Why do we put them out now? Because of “property” claimed by people who moved here. Timber value is damaged by forest fires -- timber owned by corporations or the state. The DNR uses timber harvests to help pay for our state universities, btw.

As for range fires, it’s the same deal. Somebody’s property has to be “protected” from the region’s natural tendency toward infernos. People, too, out there messing around killing rattlesnakes on their “property.”

Okay, that’s the price of building stuff where fires happen and forests becoming a profit resource. Here’s the thing: When weather here was “normal” we got a lot of moisture from that flat jet stream. And previous raging infernos acted like barriers for the new ones. And nobody cared if trees got scorched so bugs and disease could get through their bark.

The new normal, thanks to warmer global temperatures, is a more oscillating jet stream that creates hotter, drier conditions in summer and less moisture during our wet season.

@the real JohnQPublic

Andy Stahl, you've hit the nail on the head identifying the problem. And it isn't global warming/climate change libtard agenda! Well done.

cryingtoddlerlibs

Ah come on....two people (stfu deplorables, Malebovinefeces) leading experts in stupidity, said it wasn't a resource problem..this article must be false.

MaleBovineFeces

I didn't read one thing about Washington in the story and the only Washingtonian quote was from a a Forester not a Silviculturist or a Wild land Fire Manager. The reply I left on the previous story was factual, we had plenty of resources in this State, just not the weather patterns to safely deploy all of them. I'm always here to help you with the truth just ask.

cryingtoddlerlibs

Washington State Forester George Geissler (Who is DNR's Deputy Supervisor for Wildfires) says there are hundreds of unfulfilled requests for help throughout the West. Agencies are constantly seeking firefighters, aircraft, engines and support personnel. Fire crews have been summoned from at least nine states and other countries, including Canada and Israel. Hundreds of agreements for agencies to offer mutual assistance have been maxed out at the federal, state and local levels, he said.

So the guy who is in charge of resources for wildfires says there is a problem with resources and you know some mysterious facts thats says otherwise? Please share what facts are you speaking of?

Come on, really! Stop letting your pride get in the way of the truth. Just say "Wow i was wrong" It's ok no one is perfect.

If it makes you feel better, Yes the weather played a small part with air support (less than 24 hours) in the delay but my original statement is true. Inslee waited to long to declare and emergency. Like almost 2 months to late.

Thanks for being there to help clarify things. Oh maybe Dr. Zaius could use your help, he cant stop being a useful idiot.

cryingtoddlerlibs

I forgot to also say Mr Geissler also is responsible for the headline of the article.

"We know that there's really nothing left in the bucket," Geissler said. "Our sister agencies to the south in California and Oregon are really struggling."

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