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Wildfire Forces Kick Into Highest Gear

The 2013 wildfire season hit a milestone Tuesday: Preparedness Level 5, an officious way of saying resources are stretched thin and it could quickly get worse.

Preparedness Level 5 is the highest on the national wildfire preparedness scale, which the National Interagency Fire Center uses to chart wildfire activity, the deployment and availability of firefighters and equipment and the likelihood that more big fires are coming.

"The decision to move to Preparedness Level 5 reflects the complexity facing our federal and non-federal fire managers," said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in a statement.

Jewell is referring to an escalation in wildfire that now has 18,000 firefighters simultaneously tackling 48 major blazes in nine Western states. The firefighter deployment already matches the 2012 number even though there is far less fire activity overall this year.

As of Tuesday, 3.4 million acres have been scorched in 31,896 wildfires. That's just 60 percent of the average for the past 10 years and half the acreage burned to date last year.

But thunderstorms with lightning have sparked hundreds of new blazes across California, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, and major existing fires continue to burn in Utah, Arizona, Nevada, Washington and Wyoming. Thousands of homes have been threatened in just the past week.

This is the fifth time in the past decade and the 10th time since 2000 that NIFC has hit Level 5. The last season with this demand for resources was in 2008.

"When we reach PL-5 there are always going to be shortages," says NIFC spokesman Don Smurthwaite. "We can call on the military. We can call on countries that we have mutual aid agreements with. We have contractors out there and we also have what we call the ready reserve, which is people who don't normally fight fire but they are qualified."

Those additional forces may be needed sooner than usual this year because the congressional sequester forced budget cuts that left 700 federal firefighter jobs unfilled.

In fact, NIFC has already called up some of the ready reserves, which numbered 8,000 last year.

"The sequester was a debt, but the wheels are still on and we're moving ahead," Smurthwaite says. "It's always the case where we have more fire and more needs than resources available whether there's a sequester or not ... we make work what is given to us."

The immediate forecast for much of the West calls for conditions conducive to wildfire. The fire season in most of the region typically winds down around Labor Day, except for California, where September and October can be the busiest months.

"We know how to set the priorities. We rely a lot on our experience," Smurthwaite says, "and in the end it always works out."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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