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EXPLAINER: Why it takes months to subdue some wildfires

BOISE, Idaho — At nearly every community meeting on the U.S. West’s firefighting efforts, residents want to know why crews don’t simply put out the flames to save their homes and the valuable forests surrounding them.

It’s not that simple, wildfire managers say, and the reasons are many, some of them decades in the making and tied to climate change. The cumulative result has been an increase in gigantic wildfires with extreme and unpredictable behavior threatening communities that in some instances didn’t exist a few decades ago.

“How do we balance that risk to allow firefighters to be successful without transferring too much of that risk to the public?” said Evans Kuo, a “Type 1” incident commander assigned to the nation’s most significant and most dangerous wildfires. “I wish it wasn’t the case, but it’s a zero-sum game.”

More than 20,000 wildland firefighters are battling some 100 large wildfires in the U.S West. Their goal is “containment,” meaning a fuel break has been built around the entire fire using natural barriers or manmade lines, often created with bulldozers or ground crews with hand tools.

Estimated containment dates for some wildfires now burning aren’t until October or November.

WHY SO LONG?

A big concern is a safety. Kuo said residents sometimes plead with him to send firefighters into areas where he knows they could get killed. “That’s a deal-breaker,” he said on a day off after 18 straight days of 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. shifts on a wildfire in Washington state. “I’m not putting people at risk.”

Putting out these large fires, or labeling them “controlled,” will require cold weather combined with rain or snow, weeks away for many states. “I’d say pray for rain because that’s the only thing that’s going to get us out of this fire season,” Idaho’s state forester, Craig Foss, told Republican Gov. Brad Little and other state officials this week during a discussion of the wildfire season.

HAVE WILDFIRES CHANGED?

Kuo has been fighting wildfires for 30 years with the U.S. Forest Service, spending the first part of his career as a frontline firefighter with groundcrews, the backbone of any effort to stop a wildfire. At the time, wildfires of 150 square miles (390 square kilometers) were uncommon. Now blazes reach fives times that size and more, getting large enough to create their own weather.

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