There is a war going on in the Western U.S., and battalions of men and women from all over the country are fighting it. With water tanks, pumps and miles upon miles of hoses, this yellow-clad army is struggling against fires that are raging through the tall timber of the Pacific Northwest, the grasslands and sagebrush of Oregon and Nevada, the tinder-dry chaparral of California.
Since June 27, some 4,000 separate blazes have destroyed about 1.5 million acres in 14 states, including North and South Dakota, Colorado and Nebraska, as well as Canada. So far this year, 2.1 million acres in the West have been scorched. That adds up to 900,000 more acres than were affected in all of 1984. In California, the hardest-hit state, officials estimate damage at $50 million, including the destruction of 184 homes. California Governor George Deukmejian has declared a state of emergency in seven counties. So far, three people have died in California, and hundreds of fires, both large and small, continue to race out of control. "It's the worst ever, and we're just at the beginning of the season," said Jack Wilson, a director of the Federal Interagency Fire Center, based in Boise. "This is going to go on and on and on."
The West usually goes through a fire season in the last weeks of summer, but the ferocious blazes rarely start this early. "It's burning like October," said Dan Kleinman of the U.S. Forest Service. Meteorologists blame a mammoth high-pressure system, centered over Utah and bringing temperatures as high as 112 °F, for the weather conditions that have fostered the fires. The climatic front has locked the Western states into a kind of giant sauna, where dry heat settles, ocean breezes cannot penetrate and nighttime temperatures remain high. "We're facing all of July and August," said Clyde O'Dell, a Boise-based federal meteorologist. "It doesn't look good." (Dry weather has plagued other areas of the country as well, but it has brought drought rather than fire to them. In New York last week, Governor Mario Cuomo declared eight down-state counties disaster areas.)
Across the West, parched foliage has been ignited by dry-lightning storms and sometimes sparks from defective mufflers. But according to California fire officials, as many as one-third of the wildfires have been set by arsonists. Incendiary devices were found at the site of the deadly California fire in the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles.
To battle the spreading inferno, 15,924 men and women, the largest group of fire fighters ever assembled in the nation's history, have traveled from points as far away as Alaska and Massachusetts. Across the country, fire-fighting storerooms have been stripped of pumps, hoses, tools, sleeping bags and canteens.
Backed by such sophisticated hardware as helicopters and flame-fighting airplanes, and equipped with tools that range from rakes and axes to 156 bulldozers, the fire fighters try to create firebreaks as wide as 100 ft. to isolate the flames. Wearing goggles, hard hats and nonflammable shirts, they may work shifts that last more than 24 hours. Thus far, 228 have been injured on the lines from heat exhaustion, burns and poison oak.