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New Wildfires Are At A 10-Year High In The Hot, Dry Western U.S.

The Robertson Draw Fire south of Red Lodge, Mont.
The Robertson Draw Fire south of Red Lodge, Mont.

The number of new wildfires in the U.S. so far this year is at a ten-year high, according to federal data, prompting warnings of a long, potentially dangerous summer of fire.

One of the biggest areas of concern right now is the high desert Great Basin region in Utah, Nevada and eastern Oregon.

"When you have standing dead grass that's already out there and when we have high heat, that ignition potential raises dramatically," said Paul Peterson, a fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management.

Since January, more than a million acres have burned from more than 28,000 wildfires – the highest number of fires for this date since 2011. There are currently 33 active large fires across the West. The biggest has scorched more than 175,000 acres in the canyons and valleys east of Phoenix. It is 73% contained.

Unusually dry conditions are blamed

A record-breaking heat wave across the West this week isn't helping ease fire danger. Temperatures have soared into the triple digits in Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Montana, where new wildfires are sparking weeks earlier than normal.

They include a 24,000-acre fire burning northeast of Yellowstone National Park near the town of Red Lodge, Mont. It has destroyed 18 structures so far and is 0% contained. The timber and grasses there are unusually dry for this time of year.

An aerial view of the Crooked Creek Fire 25 miles east of Bridger, Mont.
/ InciWeb
An aerial view of the Crooked Creek Fire 25 miles east of Bridger, Mont.

"It's not very typical," said Billy Chapman, public information officer at Custer-Gallatin National Forest. "I think a lot of it's the heat. We have not had any spring rain really."

Chapman predicts a severe wildfire season if the abnormally warm temperatures and dry conditions continue into the summer.

"Things could change – and I hope they do – but this is not a good trend," he said.

High winds have fueled another large fire burning near Montana's capital, Helena, where a state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation helicopter crash-landed while battling the blaze. All five crew members survived with minor injuries.

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Corrected: June 16, 2021 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier version of this story said in a photo caption that the Robertson Draw Fire was south of Buffalo, Wyo. In fact, it is south of Red Lodge, Mont.
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.