Fire officials aim to squelch blazes fast, avoid megafires

U.S. officials say they will try to stamp out wildfires as quickly as possible this year as severe drought tightens its grip across the West and sets the stage for another destructive summer of blazes.

Officials say by aggressively responding to smaller fires, they hope to minimize the number of so-called megafires that have become more common as climate change makes the landscape warmer and dryer.

A similar approach was taken last year, driven in part by the pandemic and a desire to avoid the large congregations of personnel needed to fight major fires. Nevertheless, according to federal data and the research group Headwaters Economics, 2020 became one of worst fire years on record, with more than 10 million acres of land scorched and almost 18,000 houses and other structures destroyed.

California was especially hard-hit, including one fire in the northern part of the state that topped a million acres.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told firefighting personnel Thursday to brace themselves for another challenging year given the historic drought conditions.

Haaland and Vilsack wrote in a memo to fire leaders that, “90 percent of the West is currently experiencing drought.”

Federal officials say a shortage of resources last year hobbled firefighting efforts for more than two months at the height of the season. Twelve people involved in firefighting efforts were killed as were at least 45 civilians in Oregon and California.

The Biden administration is seeking a 4% increase in wildfire fighting spending — to $2.5 billion — for the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior. An additional $1.7 billion is sought by the Forest Service to manage fire dangers including by thinning stands of trees, conducting controlled burns and other measures. According to the White House, that’s a $476 million increase. (AP)