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July 3, 2013

Western wildfires' size, intensity and impact are increasing, experts say

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United States — Figures from the Idaho-based National Interagency Fire Center show that federal spending on firefighting has risen dramatically over the past two decades. In 1993, the data show, federal agencies spent about $240 million fighting fires on nearly 1.8 million acres of land. Last year, the government spent nearly 10 times as much, about $1.9 billion, to combat fires on about 9.3 million acres.

In addition, NIFC research shows that of the largest documented wildfires in U.S. history, most took place either before the early 1900s, when the government settled on a policy to fight all wildfires, or in the past two decades.

The trend seems unlikely to change anytime soon. The Quadrennial Fire Review, a wildfire crystal ball of sorts that comes out every four years, predicted in 2009 that the effects of climate change would lead to "greater probability of longer and bigger fire seasons, in more regions in the nation" - in particular, shorter, wetter winters coupled with warmer, drier summers. The report also foresaw strained fire agency budget resources at all levels - federal, tribal, state and local.

A 2013 report that looked specifically at climate change in the Southwest noted that relatively wet conditions during the 1980s and 1990s gave way to drought around 2000, contributing to wildfires of "unprecedented size." Five states experienced their largest fires on record at least once in the past decade, including Arizona's record-breaking 500,000 acre Wallow Fire in 2011, started by an abandoned campfire.

Higher-than-average temperatures since the 1970s are also of concern. In 2011, the National Research Council projected that the total area burned by wildfires would jump 380 percent for every 1.8-degree increase in temperature.

Last month, Tidwell told lawmakers that his agency would continue to fight wildfires throughout the West despite the across-the-board 5 percent budget cuts imposed by Congress, but that it would mean making changes, such as hiring fewer firefighters this season.

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