Firefighters Brace for Harsh Weather

— Hard, dry winds and rainless lightning are stoking wildfires in the Northwest, in some cases kicking up tornadoes of flames and ash that are starting new fires.

The weather is blowing fire across northwestern states faster than rain falling to their south can help put other fires out. In 24 hours, the amount of American acreage with wildfires burning increased from 1,514,453 Saturday to 1,637,495 acres this morning.

“The weekend’s not over and we expect problems today,” said E. Lynn Burkett, a public information officer at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. “As the sun rises, so does the heat. The beast resurfaces.”

“As of this morning, we have 79 large fires, seven of which are new, burning across 10 western states plus Texas, South Dakota and Florida,” Burkett added.

Too Dangerous for Firefighters

As a safety precaution, officials are suspending firefighting efforts at some blazes until the weather calms down, she added.

That may not happen right away, as a “red-flag” alert continues to threaten Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming with violent weather friendly to fires, including high winds and dry lightning. There also are winds and lightning south of Idaho, Montana, and Northern California, Burkett said, but there, rain is falling.

In many cases, the dry wind is kicking up “fire whirls,” Burkett said, which are “spinning, rising column[s] of hot air and gasses that carry smoke, debris, cinders and possibly flame.”

“It carries them up and out past containment lines and sometimes a half-mile to several miles ahead of the fire,” she added. “That sparks new fires. Not only that, it increases the uncontained perimeter of the fire.”

Huge Fire

As a result, many of the existing fires are growing. The largest fire, in the Bitterroot National Forest area of Montana, grew from about 244,000 to 259,000 acres overnight as it formed from the collision of two separate large fires Saturday.

“That is the biggest fire complex in the region. It’s a lot, and with a fire of that size and magnitude it will take a significant fall weather event to stop it — like rain or snow,” Burkett said.

Some firefighters were forced to pull back from one of the component fires, the Mussigbrod Complex fires, but 1,818 people continue to battle the larger element of the Bitterroot-area fire, the Valley Complex fires, Burkett said.

Elsewhere in the West, South Dakota’s governor urged residents of the central and southern Black Hills to evacuate, and potential evacuation plans were ready for two small towns threatened by a blaze in Washington.

Fourteen Dead

This year’s fires have been tied to the deaths of 14 people — 12 firefighters and two civilians who suffered heart attacks while evacuating or checking on property near a fire, said Susan Giannettino, another National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman.

The 13 states with active large fires are Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, Texas and South Dakota.

More than six million acres have burned this season, making it the worst year since records have been kept. The previous record was 4.3 million acres in 1996, and the per-year average over the past decade has been 2.6 million acres.

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