Feds Seek Answers after Record-Setting Year

The number of wildfires and the amount of acres burned by those wildfires set records this year.

At the same time, the federal government is trying to cut back the $900 million spent annually to battling those fires, saying some should be allowed to burn.

According to the National Interagency Coordination Center, there were 89,975 wildfires in 2006, which burned a total of 9,524,251 acres of land. That number, according to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), sets a record for the number of acres burned in the United States for an entire year.

"We set a record in the number of acres burned this year, but we did that last year, too," said National Interagency Coordination Center representative Rose Davis.

The group tracks the number of wildfires that occur in every part of the United States, noting climate changes that could influence how often wildfires occur and the resources used to battle the fire.

"Generally, we track the information to…see if there are any trends we need to look at," Davis said. "It's a crystal ball and not an exact science."

Davis said higher temperatures are partially to blame for the increase in wildfires in recent years. She said more people moving into the wildland urban interface --the area where cities meet forests -- also creates a problem.

"We are seeing larger fires, we've also had record high temperatures, and of course we are also seeing people move into wildland urban interface, which creates protection issues."

In an audit released Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's inspector general said that influx into the wildland urban interface was making it too costly for the U.S. Forest Service to battle wildfires.

To combat the problem, the audit suggests that encouraging the occurrence of smaller wildfires can actually help prevent larger, more dangerous ones. That is because small fires eliminate dry grass and twigs that would accumulate and create huge fires. The study also suggested that state and local governments share the costs of wildfire combat, and stepped up cost-containment controls.

Most of the fires reported this year -- 45,755 -- occurred in the Southern Area of the United States. According to the NCDC over half of the burned acreage in the United States occurred there as well. The Eastern area of the United States had 14,068 fires, giving it the second highest wildfire. The areas with the least amount of wildfires recorded were Alaska (just 301) and the Northwest (4,781).

Davis explained that wildfire season rolls counter clockwise around the nation. When one area is heating up, another is cooling down.

"Fire season rolls around the country counter clockwise, beginning in California" Davis said. "By fall, it's in the northeastern part of the country."

Naturally occurring wildfires begin in climates with by warmer, dryer weather.

According to the National Interagency Coordination Center, there was an increased likelihood of wildfire potential in much of the west and parts of California, due to drier conditions than normal. Warm and dry conditions were also expected throughout the fall for parts of the Northwest, Great Basin and Northern Rockies area - causing these areas to have an extended fire season. Decreased fire potential was expected in Arizona, New Mexico and parts of west Texas due to record levels of precipitation.

One of this year's deadliest wildfires was October's Esperenza fire in Riverside County, Calif. That blaze consumed over 40,000 acres and led to the deaths of five firefighters who were overrun by flames as they tried to protect a home.

Twenty-seven-year-old Jason McKay, 27-year-old Jess McLean and 20-year-old Daniel Hoover-Najera were all killed at the scene. Mark Loutzenhiser died soon after at a hospital and 23-year-old firefighter Pablo Cerda died a few days later. Police have charged 36-year-old Raymond Lee Oyler with Oct. 26 blaze.

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