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U.S. Firefighting Resources Are Already Being Exhausted... As The West Gets Hotter


Wildfires in the West have already burned more than half a million acres this year as the region bakes in historic heat waves and drought. And now, there's a new warning from federal fire managers. They say the country's firefighting resources are nearing full deployment. That's a declaration rarely made this early in the summer. NPR's Kirk Siegler has been talking to fire managers at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. He joins us now. Hey, Kirk.


CHANG: So I understand that this agency has raised the country's preparedness to a Level 4. Can you just explain what does that mean? And I feel like Level 4 is not that unusual, right?

SIEGLER: That's right. Level 4 basically just means they're at a heightened state of preparedness. What's unusual is that we usually don't get here until later in the summer, but here we are in June. There's only one more rung to go, Level 5. And that means that there're just no more crews, no more air tankers, choppers - that you might hear in the background just now where I am - or bulldozers, hand crews to even send out. So if a new big wildfire ignites, which we expect, they have to make tough choices, move equipment from one fire off of it and put it on to another.

And it's really hot here. Just here in the Northwest, we're forecast to see some of the hottest temperatures ever recorded, again, starting early next week. Jessica Gardetto here at the Fire Center put it in perspective. Let's listen to her.

JESSICA GARDETTO: This is a little rare for us to go to preparedness Level 4 this early in the year. So it also means preparing firefighters for what could be a long and intense fire year.

SIEGLER: And Ailsa, you'll recall here in the West, they're coming off of a record fire year last year in states like California and Colorado. The country was operating at a Level 5 for six weeks. Now, that didn't happen until later in the summer. But this year, managers here are worried we could hit Level 5, at the current rate, much, much sooner.

CHANG: Wait, so let me just make sure I get this right. They expect the country to literally run out of fire crews and engines and money to fight fires this summer?

SIEGLER: Well, yeah. I mean, this is a perennial dilemma, and it's always the worry. There's never enough money to deal with these worsening disasters. The federal government is having a hard time filling entry-level firefighter positions because of the pay. Even President Biden this week called that pay, $13 an hour, ridiculously low, he said. So if or when the West really starts burning, and it hasn't yet, this could be a very big issue.

CHANG: Yeah. The thing is, we already know that climate change is making summers hotter and drier and...


CHANG: ...Western forests are already overgrown. So these seem like pretty predictable disasters. Is anything being done to actually get ahead of these disasters year to year?

SIEGLER: Yeah. So it looks like - this week in fact, down in Utah, where they're reporting the driest conditions since the late 1800s, Senator Mitt Romney came out and said he's trying to get money into that infrastructure bill to modernize U.S. firefighting policy due to climate change. He made this announcement, Ailsa, in a suburb of Salt Lake City, which just sort of typifies one of the biggest problems we also have in the West right now, where you've got huge amounts of homes and communities abutting wild lands that are now burning with hotter, more intense and deadly fires. Here's the senator.


MITT ROMNEY: It's getting drier in the American west. The fires are becoming bigger. The loss of life is more significant. And continuing to do the things the way we've done them in the past doesn't make a lot of sense.

CHANG: So what does Romney want to do about that?

SIEGLER: Well, he and Arizona Senator Mark Kelly, a Democrat, are modeling their plan to create a wildfire commission to spend a year studying and modernizing U.S. firefighting policy, sort of what Australia is doing. They want to put more emphasis on the front end, what we can do to mitigate fires, you know, instead of just pouring money every year into trying to fight these fires once they ignite that we're just not going to control.

CHANG: Yeah.

SIEGLER: President Biden will meet with Western governors in Denver next week. And I'm seeing a lot of momentum behind some reforms that we haven't seen in years.

CHANG: That is NPR's Kirk Siegler joining us from Boise, Idaho. Thank you, Kirk.

SIEGLER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.