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Environment

Western Wildfires Outpace Weary Firefighting Crews

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BRENT MUSBURGER: If you see a little haze on your screen, folks, don't adjust your TV sets. The fires that have roared across the Western and the Northwestern part of the United States have poured smoke into western Montana.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That was ESPN's Brent Musburger before the kickoff of yesterday's Montana-North Dakota State football game. The season opener went ahead despite the dangerous air quality, and there was no sign of clearing skies. This fire season is the most expensive on record, with fires burning hotter and longer. The U.S. Forest Service is spending $10 million a day to contain them.

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TOM VILSACK: First time in the history of the Forest Service that we're spending more money for fire suppression than anything else.

MARTIN: That was U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaking in Portland, Friday. The Okanogan region in Washington state has been hit hard. It's an area of rugged terrain with dry grasses and trees. At times, the heavy smoke has grounded air tankers and helicopters.

RENEE JACK: This particular complex and season is definitely one of the worst I've seen as far as just multiple large fires burning at the same time, causing large resource shortages.

MARTIN: That's Renee Jack. She spoke with us just before she suited up and went out on the fire line. She's been with the U.S. Forest Service for more than a decade. She is in the middle of a 14-day week, with little rest in between.

JACK: We try not to exceed 16-hour shifts and then rest for eight hours to be able to think clearly and perform well the next day.

MARTIN: Two-hundred soldiers from a nearby military base and a thousand members of the National Guard have joined the battle. Fire crews have come from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. And for the first time, the state put out a call to volunteers without prior training. Still, Renee Jack says it's not enough.

JACK: We are short, especially crews that can get to some of the steep terrain and steep sections, the hotshot crews, also aviation resources. But we do have - we have a lot of folks working, we're getting a lot of folks in and making progress as we can.

MARTIN: In all, some 32,000 men and women are struggling to put out the flames, but NPR's Nate Rott describes the challenge this way.

NATE ROTT, BYLINE: If you took every single firefighter that the state of Washington, that the U.S. Forest Service has, that the National Park Service has and you had them hold hands in a circle around the fire, they would not be able to get around it. It's just too big.

MARTIN: Nate looks at this a little differently than other reporters. Before joining NPR, he spent six summers fighting fires in Montana. Nate says tough questions are being asked now, especially after the Arizona blaze that killed 19 firefighters two years ago.

ROTT: Somebody had put a sign up on their house in Washington state that said, dear firefighter, you know, it's only a house. Please protect yourself. And I think there is increasingly a realization, for people in the West, especially that fire is going to happen and when fires get going, like they have been this year, there's nothing that firefighters can do.

MARTIN: That was NPR's Nate Rott and firefighter Renee Jack talking to us about the fires now burning in Washington state. Officials there say the fires could burn until the first snowfall. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.