Brian Hamilton

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August 20, 2013
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Firefighters bring American, Swedes fires toward containment, as wildfires blaze across West (VIDEO)

Tuesday morning was a welcomed break from the heavy smoke blanketing the region for more than a week, said Jason Phipps of Auburn.

“This was the first morning we could open our windows in the past 10 days, because we’ve been so choked on the smoke,” Phipps said.

Phipps and his fellow foothill residents have dealt with smoky skies stemming from the American Fire, which began Aug. 10 and had burned 14,990 acres as of late Tuesday afternoon. According to the U.S. Forest Service, firefighters have reached 54 percent containment of the blaze, predicted to be fully contained by Sept. 1. The fire, burning on the Tahoe National Forest approximately 10 miles northeast of Foresthill, is one of 11 major wildfires statewide and among 51 currently burning 730,000 acres across the country, with the greatest concentration of large fires in California, Idaho, and Montana.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday the nation’s firefighters have been placed on a war footing — known as “National Preparedness Level 5.” It’s the first time that step has been taken since 2008, according to Wildfire Today, and it reflects the combination of high fire activity, the large amounts of firefighting resources already committed to wildfires, and the expectation for more fires to erupt in the coming days as hot, dry weather continues across the West. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho, reported lightning strikes in California and Montana have led to several new large fires in recent days, with more thunderstorm activity expected. According to a statement on the NIFC website, smokejumpers, “hotshot crews,” air tankers and helicopters are all in short supply, although that is not unusual when wildfires are this active.

On the American Fire, 1,813 total personnel are battling the blaze, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Another 1,484 people are fighting the Swedes Fire in Butte County, southeast of Oroville. According to Cal Fire, the Swedes Fire, which was sparked late Friday afternoon, has burnt 2,139 acres and is 75 percent contained.

Like his Auburn neighbors, Phipps has experienced the burning eyes and constant campfire smell ever since the American Fire was sparked, but such common complaints and irritations haven’t been his only brush with the blaze. A videographer, Phipps forged into the fire in recent days to document the scene. (See this story online at, or scan the accompanying QR code to view the video).

“Watching the bravery of the people fighting the fires and driving through there was a quite a scene,” he said. “It was like a battle zone. Very intense.”

Phipps and his partner, Kellen Walker, making use of some still photography from retired Sacramento Metro Fire battalion chief Wes Schultz, filmed and edited a time-elapse video that quickly surpassed 11,000 viewers on YouTube.

“I also shot the Robbers Fire (also near Foresthill) last year as well,” Phipps said. I’m trying to get a little bit of traction to produce a documentary film about wildfires occurring in Northern California. Both of those fires burnt really close to my home. When I shot the Robbers Fire last year, I had no access. We actually hiked six miles on foot to get a little bit of access to the fire, but not as much as we wanted.

“These kind of events tend to draw people together,” Phipps said. “And the best part of this experience has been seeing how many people so quickly shared their gratitude for the people who are fighting the fire.”

Cal Fire reported Tuesday that since Sunday evening, thousands dry lightning strikes that have sparked more than a hundred new wildfires. While most of those fires have been contained to small spots, strong winds and dry conditions have allowed several to grow rapidly. A Red Flag Warning remains in effect for most of the foothills and mountains of Northern California and Bay Area due to the possibility of dry lightning in combination with gusty winds. The public is asked to be cautious during the Red Flag Warning and to do their part in preventing wildfires. For more the Warnings and tips to prevent fires:

“Active fire behavior and roll out of burning material continue to be of concern, and will be closely monitored,” the forest service reports. “Strong, erratic outflow winds and lightning may occur (Tuesday), as the National Weather Service’s Red Flag Warning remains in effect until 11 p.m. Wednesday.”

Cal Fire has responded to over 4,500 wildfires that have charred over 92,000 acres statewide so far this year, according to a news release. Compared to last year during the same time period Cal Fire had responded to fewer than 3,300 fires that burned nearly 43,000 acres. This trend of increased fires this year has continued all season and is likely to continue through the fall. The public is urged to ensure they are prepared for wildfires by having a Wildfire Action Plan that includes evacuation routes, as well as having an Emergency Supply Kit. Learn more at

The wildfires are burning in states that have been hard hit by drought, with drought conditions extending from New Mexico to Oregon. California has had its driest year-to-date on record, while Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon have had one of their top-10 driest years to date.

This year has been marked by particularly devastating blazes. Colorado saw its most damaging wildfire in its history, which killed two people and destroyed more than 500 buildings. And in Arizona, 19 members of an elite firefighting unit were killed when they were overtaken by flames near the town of Yarnell on July 31.

The ongoing fires may be stretching already thin firefighting resources, but the number of wildfires isn’t unusual, at least in the context of the past decade. So far this year, there have been about 32,000 wildfires in the U.S., according to NIFC data, with 3.4 million acres burned. That compares to a 10-year average of 53,000 fires by this point in the year, with about 5.4 million acres burned. Last year, which was a particularly brutal wildfire season, nearly 6.9 million acres had already burned by this point in the year.

Those statistics won’t come as consolation to the residents affected by the current spate of fires, nor do they tell the bigger picture story, which is of a steadily worsening wildfire regime in the West. Hidden within the context of year-to-year variability is the clear long-term trend toward more large fires in the West. There are more large fires (greater than 10,000 acres) burning now than at any time in the past 40 years, and the total area burned each year has also increased.

And, in fact, the top eight worst wildfire years since 1960, in terms of acres burned, have all occurred since 2000, according to NIFC data.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Editor Brian Hamilton via email at or by phone at 477-4249.

“Watching the bravery of the people fighting the fires and driving through there was a quite a scene. It was like a battle zone. Very intense.”
Jason Phipps
Auburn videographer

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The Union Updated Sep 9, 2013 03:17PM Published Aug 26, 2013 12:40AM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.