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U.S. Federal Fire Officials Are Seeking Military Help In Fighting Wildfires

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

America's wildland firefighting resources are maxed out. Five million acres of land have already burned this year, mostly in the West. And there are 85 major wildfires currently burning out of control. So federal fire officials are calling in the U.S. military and looking for international help now. For more on all of this, we're joined now by NPR's Kirk Siegler, who's in Boise, Idaho. Hey, Kirk.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Hello, Ailsa.

CHANG: So I understand that you are at this point basically in the center of the federal and state wildland firefighting response?

SIEGLER: You could say that, yes. I'm actually standing outside the National Interagency Fire Center here in Boise, looking at a couple of air tankers out on the tarmac here. And they've been basically preparing for the worst here for weeks now. They've been at a preparedness level five. That means that all resources are deployed to wildfires. And so if or when, I think at this point, they get another big one, they're going to have to start pulling crews off of other fires. You know, it's hard to decide how to do that, Ailsa, when you're 100% maxed out, like you said...

CHANG: Yeah.

SIEGLER: ...With 25,000 firefighters out on the ground already in California, Oregon and elsewhere.

CHANG: Well, what are fire managers they're telling you? Because at this point, there is no sign of rain or snow in the forecast anytime soon. So what's the contingency plan?

SIEGLER: Well, they're mobilizing the military, which is not unheard of. It's something they don't do every year, though, only in bad years like this. And things are really bad. The National Guard in several states is also sending crews to the west here. They've got an order out for a half battalion, which could bring in 10 more hand crews from the U.S. military. And they're also looking to bring in more hotshot crews and crews from Mexico and Canada at this point, too.

CHANG: Wow. How much do you think all of that additional assistance is going to help the situation here?

SIEGLER: I mean, it's not going to hurt. But honestly, you're not going to put these mega fires out. You've got forests dried out from climate change. They're stressed. They've been overgrown due to a legacy of the fact that we've been suppressing fires. And there are just more people living in them. Here at the fire center, Dan Smith put it to me pretty bluntly. These are urban wildfires. And they're burning into whole towns and cities, and people are dying.

DAN SMITH: I mean, the priority has to be search and rescue and evacuations of people to get them out of harm's way. And that's a very tough situation to be in.

SIEGLER: You know, Ailsa, it's extraordinary - the priority right now is search and rescue, not even of wildfire suppression or trying to protect homes.

CHANG: Well, isn't all of this kind of a worst-case scenario right now? Because we have this really bad fire season, and now we're in the middle of a pandemic. How much of the pandemic is hampering efforts right now?

SIEGLER: Well, yeah. This is exactly what everyone in the wildland fire community hoped wasn't going to happen - having, you know, 25,000 firefighters deployed now in the middle of a pandemic. Officials here at the center told me that the Canadians in particular were hesitant to initially send help due to the fact that the coronavirus is still so out of control down here. But federal and state governments have put a lot of safety protocols in place. The Canadians, I'm told, are sending crews. And we're going to be continuing to lean on other countries, in particular in the Southern Hemisphere, where it's winter because there's really no sign that this fire season is going to slow down anytime soon.

CHANG: That is NPR's Kirk Siegler talking to us from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Thank you, Kirk.

SIEGLER: You're welcome, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.