Is This the Worst Wildfire Season Ever?

A smokejumper getting on top of an emerging fire.
A smokejumper getting on top of an emerging fire. Idaho Statesman / Getty Images

Wildfires have burned more than 8 million acres this summer in the U.S., making 2015 one of the most devastating fire seasons on record. And it's not over yet. At the time of this writing, 65 large fires were blazing in the West, including three in Washington State that had already consumed more than 100,000 acres each. We caught up with Dan Cottrell, with the Missoula Smokejumpers, to find out more.

Are we at risk for the worst fire season ever?
In 2006, we saw 9,873,745 acres burned, which was the worst ever — or at least the worst since the National Interagency Fire Center began tracking wild land fires in 1960. This season has been really busy so far, but a fair amount has changed in the past few days. We got our first fall pattern low-pressure system coming on shore off the Pacific Ocean at the end of the week, which brought a whole lot of much-needed moisture with it that really helped the big fires in Washington. The low-pressure system parked in Montana over the weekend. We got snowed on at about the 6,000-foot level, and rain everywhere else, which turned the corner on the big fires in Montana. I'd been working the Heart Butte fire that was threatening a small community on the Blackfoot Indian reservation just east of Glacier National Park since August 31, and pretty much everyone got to go home. The U.S. had been at a wildfire preparedness level 5 — the highest level — for a while, and now its bumped down to a 4. The Northern Rockies, where I work, got lowered to a 3. We'd been at 5 for about a month.

So we're in the clear?
Not exactly. Those big fires in the Rockies should hold, thanks to the low-pressure system that moved in, but California doesn't really start ramping up until fall. They'll often burn significant acreage in September, October, and November. We pretty much always have smokejumpers deployed there around Halloween time.


How do Smokejumpers handle these megafires?
The basic premise behind smokejumping is that it's lot easier to suppress a fire when it's small, just a few acres, than when it's a megafire burning tens of thousands of acres. To that effect, our training, technology, and equipment allows us to be a rapidly responding resource that can get to fires quickly, deploy people on the ground quickly, and catch these fires while they're still small. Megafires change the way we do business during a busy fire season like this one. We find ourselves being deployed on fires that are about to cross the line to a megafire, or are already megafires. Often our mission in those cases is to jump to a smaller fire that's in front of the main fire and put that one out. And this season, the Missoula Smokejumpers have already done about 10 paracargo missions, where we're not jumping or putting firefighters out the door, but instead delivering supplies by parachute to remote locations to serve the firefighters who are out there. It's a way our program can help support these larger battles going on with fires.

What can the rest of us do?
The trend in the last 20-30 years in the West is that a lot more people are building homes in fire prone areas, in what we call the wildland–urban interface, which is the transition zone between wilderness and developed urban areas. I'm one of them. I live in the outskirts of Missoula, closer to outdoor recreation. People who choose this lifestyle need to be a lot more proactive about how they prepare their property for the occurrence of a wildfire, because in these areas, it's not a question of if a fire will affect the land, but rather when. The things you need to do, like cutting your trees back and moving your firewood away from your house, aren't hard, and will make a huge difference when there's a fire rolling down toward your property. 

What else can (or should) the Government do?
Wildland fires are a part of living in the inter-mountain West, and that's not going to change. What needs to change is the mindset about what we expect our governments to do in those situations. There are not enough resources — people or equipment — especially during a busy fire season, to protect every home. If people in the West want to live in places close to the wilderness, we have to be willing to face the dangers that come with living in a fire prone area. People in the Gulf Coast states are a little more in tune with their environment in that way. They understand that the assumed risk of living in a home on the Gulf Coast is that it could be destroyed by a hurricane. They don't expect people to stand up and fight a hurricane—they evacuate, return when it's safe enough to do so, and deal with the damages. In the same way we don't line up the National Guard on the coast of North Carolina when there's a hurricane, we shouldn't line up firefighters in the face of a megafire.