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    We're at Defcon One for Wildfires

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    Image: Flickr

    On Tuesday, August 20th, the National Interagency Fire Center announced that eight "new large fires" had been started. That brought the total of "large and uncontained" fires raging across the United States to 48. According to my calculations, that's one devastating, uncontrolled wildfire for each state. And that's to say nothing of the 214 new smaller ones. Yes, there are 262 fires raging in the US right now.

    That's enough to move the NIFC to declare 'Preparedness Level 5', which is essentially Defcon 1 for firefighters. PL 5 is the highest level of alert, and despite the plethora of severe fires over the past few years, the last time it was declared was 2008. Which essentially, I think, means it's a blistering hellscape out there. 

    You certainly get that impression perusing the NIFC's report, which details the various infernos sweeping the countryside, and reads like an environmental police blotter during a particularly fiery apocalypse:

    Beaver Creek, Twin Falls District, BLM. One mile east of Hailey, ID ... Timber, brush and grass. Active fire behavior with crowning and spotting. Power lines and numerous structures threatened. Evacuations and area closures in effect.

    Little Queens, Sawtooth NF. Six miles northwest of Atlanta, ID ... Timber. Active fire behavior with crowning. Community of Atlanta threatened. Evacuations in effect.


    Patch Springs, Salt Lake Field Office, BLM ... Two miles northwest of Terra, UT. Timber, juniper and grass. Creeping and smoldering with single tree torching. Structures and power lines threatened.


    Elk Complex, Boise NF ... Ten miles southwest of Pine, ID. Timber, brush and grass. Creeping and smoldering with short-range spotting. Numerous structures threatened. Road and area closures in effect.

    The list goes on—more evacuations, road closures, and more "creeping and smoldering" and "crowning and spotting." And that's just the Eastern Great Basin Area. 

    The report is a pretty harrowing reminder of the scope of these fires—according to it, 83,000 acres were burned from those 262 fires yesterday alone. 

    And it's a reminder that the conflagrations are going to keep on coming. The last PL 5 alert may have been registered in 2008, but they're on an upswing that seems to correlate with the increasingly arid environs bestowed upon the nation by a warming climate. In the 90s, there were only three PL 5s. In the 00s, there were seven.

    But bureaucratic decision-making can be fickle and arbitrary (which is probably why we haven't had a PL 5 in five years in the first place) and the number of warnings obviously isn't a great way to locate a trend in worsening fire conditions—NASA's satellite records are better for that. Earlier this year, NASA announced that their research showed climate change is driving "longer and stronger" seasons. And a PNAS report showed rather conclusively that warmer temperatures lead to drier conditions—and more fires. 

    In the midst of last years record-breaking wild fires, the Princeton climatologist Michael Oppenheimer was blunt about the climate link.

    "What we're seeing is a window into what global warming really looks like," he told the Guardian.

    So, as thousands more acres burn, and more firefighters put their lives at increasingly greater risk, remember that this isn't a fluke. This is the future.