The West is burning, again

The West is burning, again

June 20th, 2012 in Opinion Times

The American West and wildfires seem almost synonymous. It can hardly be a surprise, then, to report that firefighters are battling significant blazes in nine states in that part of the country. At this writing, the total acreage consumed in the blazes is far in excess of that in all of Hamilton County. That total is certain to increase.

While some of the fires are partially contained, others are not. Current and predicted weather -- hot, very dry and windy, in many of the hardest-hit areas -- suggests that firefighters will remain on the lines for days, possibly weeks, to come. And while most of the fires are in sparsely populated areas, population centers have not been spared.

Consequently, thousands of people across the West have been ordered to evacuate their homes and businesses, and find shelter elsewhere. Several hundred structures already have been burned. Fortunately, there's been little loss of life, but given the capriciousness of the fires and the winds driving them, that could change.

Fire and public safety officials in the West offer a mixed view of the situation. They're extremely worried about the coming weeks and months. That's because fire season is getting an early start. Typically, it starts later in the summer, not early June. They're guardedly optimistic, however, about current containment operations. On Tuesday, officials reported:

• In California and Colorado, progress was being made against some of the larger fires, but smaller ones in isolated areas still posed a problem. There are worries, however, that high temperatures, low humidity, brisk winds and the availability of dry tinder could hamper on-going containment efforts.

• In Idaho and New Mexico, improvements in the weather allowed firefighters to make headway against major fires, but progress was not uniform. Idaho remains under a red flag warning for fire danger and at least one new fire broke out in New Mexico on Monday.

• In Wyoming, Nevada, Utah and Nebraska there were some successes in containing and managing fires, but worries remain about the possibility of regeneration of old fires and the birth of new ones. Even the possibility of some thunderstorms in the region brings concern as well as hope. The rain could be beneficial, but the lightning that accompanies such storms is a major cause of forest fires.

The wildfires have a wide-ranging effect. Those living in the fires' paths are most directly affected, of course, but those hundreds of miles away are impacted as well. Clouds of smoke -- some visible on images taken by satellites in space -- can make air and ground travel hazardous and cause health problems for those hundreds of miles away. There's no ready antidote for naturally occurring wildfires, though.

The best defenses against the blazes, it appears, are geography and climate abetted by careful planning and preparation. Weather and forest fire experts agree that immense Western-style fires are possible in Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia but that they re highly unlikely. The high humidity and typically low winds prevalent here in the hot, dry season, they say, typically don't support the long-term, far-ranging infernos that now plague the West and make for such compelling images.

Even so, residents here should be prepared for the possibility of wildfires, however remote. Awareness of conditions conducive to them and readiness to act if they occur remains the best protection.