Western fires consume more acres than seen in years

Aug 31, 2012

Depending on who you talk to, 2012 is the year of the dragon or the year the world will end. To those in the west, however, it is the year of fire. This year has seen more fire damage than has occurred in years.

According to the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) active fire mapping service, 2012 year-to-date has had the most fire damage seen in six years, with 7.29 million acres burned already. Only 2005 and 2006 saw more destruction at this time in the year at 7.32 million acres and 7.58 million acres burned, respectively.

What is different is that while the acres burned are higher than usual, the number of individual fires experienced so far this year—44,017 as of Aug. 30—is the second to lowest amount seen in 10 years. This means that though less numerous, this year’s fires are packing a bigger punch.

There are currently 31 large fire incidents ongoing, and 99 new fires being addressed in the western states. There are many more ongoing fires than what fit USFS’ definition of “large incidents” however, and hot dry conditions make for a perfect tinderbox for more. Though many of the fires being tracked are in a number of the western states, the fires in California and Idaho are the largest.


The Golden State frequently sees devastating summer wild fires and this year is no different.

As of Aug. 30, there were six large fires being tracked and actively reported on. Details on the three largest fires are list below. Fires not covered are the Bagley, Fort Complex and Ponderosa fires for which there is mixed containment. Collectively, the California fires have burned over 495,600 acres.

Rush—This large fire has consumed roughly 316,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land in Lassen County along the northeastern boarder of the state. The fire was caused by lightning and has moved into northern Nevada. Containment is estimated at 82 percent. week, the containment is estimated at 87 percent.

North Pass—At 33,000 acres and an estimated 35 percent contained, the North Pass fire continues to grow through the pines of the Mendocino National Forest inland of the northern California coast. Full containment is expected by the second week of September. A lightning strike is credited with the creation of this blaze.

California Gov. Jerry Brown has declared states of emergency for various counties throughout the late spring and summer due to the fires. California is no stranger to fires during these seasons—almost to the point where native Californians will refer to the time as “fire season”—but this year’s wildfires have been particularly devastating.

Western and northwestern Idaho are currently seeing the most active large fires in any one state. The state’s larger fires—all of them over 100,000 acres— are concentrated in the central western region of the state. All told, over 410,000 acres are burning in Idaho.

Mustang Complex— This fire, which is a combination of originally four fires, has consumed nearly 150,000 acres in the Salmon-Challis National Forest and has resulted in evacuation calls. The fires were started by lightning and as a unit have grown on a day-to-day basis. Containment is estimated at 14 percent, with total expected containment taking as long as till the end of September.

Trinity Ridge—At 133,000 acres, this fire is the closest major fire to the relatively heavily populated region of Boise. The fire is said to have been human caused and is burning through the Boise National Forest. Structures are threatened and evacuation procedures are underway. Containment is loosely estimated at 10 percent and full containment isn’t expected until far into October.

Halstead—This is another fire burning in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, but it is separate and to the south of the Mustang Complex fire. It has currently burned roughly 104,000 acres and threatens structures. Like the other Salmon-Challis fire, Halstead was started by lightning. Estimates on containment stand at 7 percent with full containment expected in mid-October.

Jessie Thompson, communications director of the Idaho Cattlemen’s Association, has said the fires are having a huge negative impact on Idaho ranchers, despite them being “veterans at dealing with fire.”

“Producers are forced to find alternatives for grazing lands and winter feed supplies for their animals. With multiple fires burning in the Northwest, this becomes even more difficult, since many producers are looking to do the same. It also doesn’t help that many of the alternative grazing lands these producers would turn to have already been burnt.”

Like the California governor, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter declared a state of disaster in his state because of the fires in mid-August. Thompson voiced her hope that agencies allow greater grazing of public lands to reduce the loads which fuel these fires.

“Managed grazing is an excellent tool to limit the amount and severity of wildfires. Our producers are excellent stewards of the land and are committed to protecting the longevity of our environment’s natural resources.”

Several other states in the west are currently dealing with numerous wildfires in this drought-ridden season, though none quite to the extent of California and Idaho. Luckily, some of the more spectacular fires of this summer which garnered national—and in some cases, international— media attention have been contained.

Oregon (Cache Creek)—At 69,000 acres already burned, this continuing fire has a good portion of the northwestern state’s 89,330 acres currently in flames. The Cache Creek fire is burning through the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest on the west bank of the Snake River and has crossed the state border into Washington. The fire is thought to have been started by lightning and is 35 percent contained. Full containment isn’t anticipated until early to mid- September.

Montana (Delphia)—This ongoing fire in Mussellshell County has consumed about 41,000 acres and is roughly 75 percent contained. It was started by a lightning strike and estimates of full containment stand around the first week of September. This fire represents the lion’s share of Montana’s 47,500 acres currently burning.

In part in response to the prospect of increased fire severity due to this year’s historic drought, the Catastrophic Wildfire Prevention Act of 2012, known as S. 3409, was introduced to Congress mid-July. The act is said to expedite the process by which management decisions can be made and specifically names grazing as a means of fuel load reduction in fire-susceptible areas.

“The Catastrophic Wildfire Prevention Act empowers land managers to more dynamically manage our nation’s public lands,” said National Parks, Forests, and Public Land Subcommittee Chairman Rob Bishop. “Timber harvests and livestock grazing are effective tools that, when used responsibly, can promote forest health and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.”

The act was originally drafted by Arizona Rep. Paul Gosor and has been reintroduced by Utah Sen. Mike Lee. The act was initially read and referred to committee.

For more information on large fires around the country, visit activefiremaps.

fs.fed.us or the National Interagency Fire Center at NIFC.gov/fireinfo/nfn.htm. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor