This wildfire season in the western U.S. appears to be on track to be another record-setter. At last count, on Thursday, Sept. 7, there were 137 large wildfires burning across 7.8 million acres.
That acreage number already exceeds the 10-year average of five million acres consumed. Currently, there are 27,256 federal, tribal, state, volunteer, and rural firefighters working 1,865 engines and as boots on the ground for more than 222 helicopters and a force of air tankers.
As of Tuesday, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, mobilized the military to help suppress these conflagrations.
Apparently, the major regions of the intermountain West are taking turns on who gets the most dangerous blazes and in what year. Two years ago, it was California’s turn. After successive years of drought, the Rough Fire of 2015 was California’s most devastating fire that year and broke this region’s all-time record for acreage burned (151,623 acres) and suppression costs.
After an atypical season of heavy winter rain and snowfall (2016-2017), the entire West has experienced a dry and extremely hot summer. Among the hardest hit areas this year, with more than one-seventh of the wildfire acreage of the West’s nearly eight million acres, is Montana. In
July, the average daytime high in Bozeman, Mont., exceeded 89 degrees, the third hottest July since records have been kept in 1892.
The largest fire in Montana is the Rice Ridge Fire burning near Seeley Lake in the west-central part of the state. It has currently consumed more than 120,000 acres and is less than 10 percent contained.
Even though the Rice Ridge Fire is more than 100 miles from Helena, Mont., the state’s capital city, the smoke is so thick, residents are reporting they can’t see across the street.
The normally robust summer vacation season at Seeley and other nearby lake communities in the state are deserted. The death toll in Montana includes two firefighters.
Pier Fire— This fire, located only 25 miles from Three Rivers, experienced its rapid flare-up on Tuesday, Aug. 29. The blaze was human-caused and started south of Highway 190 approximately seven miles east of Springville. At the morning briefing on Thursday, Sept. 7, the size of the fire was reported at 23,729 acres with 30 percent containment.
Back-burning operations on Wednesday near the southwest perimeter of the blaze caused extremely smoky conditions during the morning hours in Three Rivers and Sequoia National Park. Cooler weather conditions on Thursday were expected to help the more than 1,687 firefighting personnel to boost containment on the blaze.
Mandatory evacuations remain in effect for Camp Nelson, Sequoia Crest, Mountain Aire, Rogers Camp, Pierpoint Springs, Cedar Slope, Doyle Springs, Alpine Village, and Wishon.
Area closures include Sequoia National Forest roads, trails, and lands near the Pier Fire. Cal Fire has closed Mountain Home State Demonstration Forest; Tulare County has ordered the closure of Balch Park.
The following roads are closed to all traffic: Highway 190 east of Springville is closed at Upper Rio Vista Road to eastbound traffic; Highway 190 north of Ponderosa is closed at Forest Road to westbound traffic.
Yosemite area fires— Two other fires — Railroad at 11,603 acres, 43 percent contained; South Fork at 6,640 acres, 47 percent contained — burning near the south entrance of Yosemite National Park are sending residual smoke southward into Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.
The Railroad Fire, located between Sugar Pine and Fish Camp is currently the more dangerous of the two blazes. Sugar Pine, Calvin Crest, and Tenaya Lodge Resort have been evacuated and the fire has a spread potential to enter the Nelder Grove of giant sequoias.
With cooler weather in the forecast, firefighters hope to have the Railroad Fire fully contained by Sept. 15.