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Federal officials warn many parts of the U.S. could see elevated wildfire risks

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's fire season. In fact, fire season is so long now it's almost always fire season, and federal officials are warning that many parts of this country could see an elevated wildfire risk in the coming months. Murphy Woodhouse of Boise State Public Radio is watching all of this as a reporter and as a former wildland firefighter. Murphy, good morning.

MURPHY WOODHOUSE, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, what's the wildfire situation right now?

WOODHOUSE: Yeah, so, kind of where we're at right now is fairly typical for July in terms of just the frequency of incidents. There have certainly been some very high-profile fires, including one started this past weekend outside of Santa Barbara, Calif. There have been evacuations in that incident, and so far nearly 19,000 acres have burned in the so-called lake fire there. And I just checked, as of right now or moments ago, it was 8% contained, according to California fire officials. And as we know, it's extremely hot in the West. Daily temperature records are being set in some places, and that's also leading, of course, to higher fire danger. And these high temperatures are expected to continue this week, combined with regional forecasts of very dry air and high winds. That kind of all adds up to what we could call fire weather.

INSKEEP: You said record temperatures. So there are some extremes here, but is this kind of dryness really fairly normal?

WOODHOUSE: Yeah, so, I mean, the National Interagency Fire Center, which oversees national wildfire responses, you know, in its most recent monthly seasonal outlook, you know, there was some kind of worrisome language about what we might be in store for this fire season. The line from this July's outlook jumped out at me - quote, "In comparison to the outlook issued a month ago, more and larger areas are expected to experience above-normal significant fire potential starting in July." And what those maps show is that really no part of the country is expected to have below average fire potential.

INSKEEP: Wow.

WOODHOUSE: And furthermore, that significant portions of the West, including large swaths of Idaho, where I am, Nevada, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, are likely to see above average fire activity all the way through September. And then this month, much of Mississippi and Alabama, as well as parts of the Carolinas in the Mid Atlantic, could see the same.

INSKEEP: Mississippi, Alabama - wow. Why is this summer so bad in so many places?

WOODHOUSE: So, I mean, you know, recent weather is only a part of what's going on here. Some other things going on with last year's very light fire season, the lightest since 1998, you know, there's a lot of what's called carry-over fuel that's still available to burn. And at the same time, the past winter were quite wet in many parts of the West the past two winters, and, of course, that leads to substantial growth in grasses and other fuels.

INSKEEP: Sure.

WOODHOUSE: And let's hear from the Fire Center meteorologist Jim Wallmann about what that all adds up to.

JIM WALLMANN: When it dries out, as it typically does over the summer, and it's done a little bit earlier this year due to the hot temperatures, it makes a really good recipe for active fires.

INSKEEP: Well, Murphy, as somebody who's done this work of fighting fires in the past, what do you think about as we get into these hot months of summer?

WOODHOUSE: Yeah, I mean, really, my thoughts go just first and foremost, you know, to the many thousands of young women and men who get kind of called out into the wildlands of this country to do this extremely dangerous work. You know, it requires a lot of people, a lot of time away from family, and obviously a lot of near-term and long-term risks. So, I mean, you know, obviously, these fires can be very dangerous for homeowners in much of the West, but, you know, my thoughts certainly always first go to the people who are actually going to be responding to these often quite dangerous incidents.

INSKEEP: Murphy Woodhouse, Mountain West News Bureau Reporter for Boise State Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Murphy Woodhouse
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.