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Out-Of-Control Wildfires Threaten Western States

Sep 6, 2017
Originally published on September 6, 2017 7:16 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, much of the country's attention is focused right now on the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and also the potential destruction from Hurricane Irma, which has arrived in the Caribbean. But here in the American West, there are some states dealing with their own natural disasters, large out-of-control wildfires. And NPR's Kirk Siegler reports they're just getting worse.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Climate scientists believe the wildfire season in the hotter and drier West is up to two months longer than it was just two decades ago, a troubling stat that Montana Governor Steve Bullock says hit home recently. Resources are stretched so thin in his state that he ordered his National Guard soldiers to be trained as wildland firefighters to mobilize to the front lines.

STEVE BULLOCK: The amount of just human capital is finite when you're looking at 80 large fires burning throughout nine western states.

SIEGLER: Montana has so far shouldered the worst of it, with close to a million acres of forest and prairie blackened by wildfires this year. Smoke has been a fixture in the choked mountain valleys for close to two months now, prompting its own evacuations for health concerns. And in Glacier National Park, Governor Bullock says, firefighters are doing all they can to save the famous Lake McDonald Lodge.

BULLOCK: I mean, that's a 103-year-old hotel that really is a symbol for so many visitors.

SIEGLER: The same fire destroyed one of the park's historic back country hiker chalets just last week. Another fast-moving fire in a remote community near the Canadian border destroyed homes and forced residents like Gail Tucker to evacuate with little notice.

GAIL TUCKER: It's a sad time for everyone.

SIEGLER: So far, the state of Montana has spent more than $50 million on fires with no firm guarantees that the federal government will step in to reimburse them. For now, Tucker is just hoping her home is spared. They've done a lot of work clearing trees and brush around it as a fire buffer.

TUCKER: You hope the winds don't come back because the fire will curve around and get back where our homes are.

SIEGLER: In the Pacific Northwest, drought-fueled fires are spreading into the usually lush, misty forests near the coast. East of Portland, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury declared a state of emergency yesterday in the Columbia River Gorge, where the Eagle Creek fire is burning out of control, threatening another historic lodge at the base of the Multnomah Falls.

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DEBORAH KAFOURY: I think I can speak for all Oregonians when I say that our hearts are breaking. The gorge is Oregon's crown jewel. It's our playground.

SIEGLER: Usually, by early September, the Northwest at least gets a rain or snowstorm that puts a damper on the fire season. But the forecast shows little promise of that, at least for the next several weeks. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.