Each year, millions of acres across the U.S. are burned in wildfires. Dry conditions, fierce winds, and human activity are often factors in the most dangerous blazes but fire season is also simply a part of nature's cycle. "Fire's not the enemy. We have to take care of fire, we have to manage fire, we have to be aware of wildfire but we don't want to demonize it," says Ken Frederick, former firefighter and public affairs specialist at the National Interagency Fire Center.
Even though California and eastern Oregon are currently in severe droughts, this year has been surprisingly tame. Only about one-third of the expected acreage has burned and 30 percent fewer fires have started than predicted by trends from the last decade. Still, this is no reason to ignore potential danger – the past has proven that late fire seasons can be just as deadly. A rule of thumb from Frederick: if pencil-sized sticks are cracking underfoot, conditions are primed for fiery destruction.
Cerro Grande, 2000
Credit: Getty Images
The Place: New Mexico
The Underlying Cause: Prescribed burn
The Devastation: 47,650 acres burned, 235 structures destroyed, Los Alamos National Laboratory damaged. Total cost estimated at $1 billion.
What Is Noteworthy about This Fire: Ironically, Cerro Grande began as a prescribed fire, meant to clear some vegetation buildup in the Bandelier National Monument. It was set at the beginning of fire season in the Southwest during a 3-year drought but officials felt there was enough moisture at that elevation to keep it under control. As often happens, unexpected winds caused the fire to intensify and move. In later investigations, the superintendent who was responsible for approving the burn plan admitted that he was not technically competent to do so.