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Wildfires Raging in Nearly Every Western State, Straining Resources

The Weather Channel logoThe Weather Channel 6/23/2021 Ron Brackett

In addition to drought and heat, the Western United States is suffering through a historic wildfire season.

Large wildfires are burning in every Western state except Washington. At least 45 fires that are burning now have consumed more than 820 square miles. That's an area larger than the cities of New York and Los Angeles combined.

Through Wednesday morning, the country has seen 29,362 large wildfires this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That's the most fires through late June since 2011.

The National Preparedness Level has already been increased to Level 4, the second earliest date since 1990, according to the NIFC.

(MORE: U.S. Has Had Most Wildfires Through June in 10 Years)

Level 4 means three or more geographic areas are experiencing large, complex wildfires competing for firefighting resources and about 60% of the country's fire command teams and wildland firefighting personnel are committed to wildfires, the NIFC says.

In the last 20 years, the National Preparedness Level has been increased to Level 4 in the month of the June only three other times.

The National Weather Service has issued red flag fire warnings in parts of northwestern Arizona, eastern Nevada, much of Utah, and parts of Colorado, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Northern California.

Here is a look at some of the fires.

Arizona

More than a dozen large fires are burning in Arizona, many of them in national forests. Half of the national forests in the state will close to the public because of the wildfire danger and limited resources, the Associated Press reported. The Coconino and Kaibab close Wednesday, and the Apache-Sitgreaves closes on Thursday.

Strong winds and dry vegetation are driving the Rafael Fire, which is burning about 16 miles southwest of Flagstaff. Lightning sparked the blaze, which was first discovered on Friday. It has burned nearly 38 square miles and is 0% contained, according to Inciweb. Some rural ranches have been told to evacuate because of the fire, according to the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office. Several other areas in the region, including residents of the southwest portions of Flagstaff, have been told to be ready to evacuate.

“I would call it the perfect storm of an alignment of drought conditions, extremely drought-stressed vegetation and the wind,” Bureau of Land Management spokesperson Dolores Garcia told the Arizona Daily Sun. “Many of these areas have thick vegetation, so it creates a lot of heat and it allows (the fire) to kind of keep that momentum going. And then you add the wind on top of it.”

Prescott National Forest spokesperson Noel Fletcher said so many fires are burning, fire managers are having to juggle resources.

"Resources are definitely stretched thin. We have so many incidents going on right now that we are scrambling to get skeleton crews together to take care of certain things. Now some things you can do that with and other things you can't," Fletcher told the Daily Sun.

One of the other fires straining resources is the Backbone Fire. Lightning started it on June 16 about 12 miles west of Pine and Strawberry, Arizona, according to Inciweb.

It has forced evacuations in Strawberry, Pine and Hunts Ranch, according to AZFamily.com.

(MORE: Potentially Historic, Dangerous Temperatures to Plague the West)

Trace Wallace and Kylee Egbert were having their wedding rehearsal dinner Friday at Cabins on Strawberry Hill when the first evacuation order came.

"We were in the middle of rehearsal when I believe the owner of the cabins came running and screaming at us, telling us we needed to go now," Jackie Wallace, mother of the groom, told azfamily.com. "It was kind of chaotic. Everybody ran. We had all our stuff in the cabins and just grabbed everything we could remember and got out of there."

The next day, with much of the community pitching in, the wedding went on in Egbert's back yard in Payson.

The fire, burning about 55 miles south of Flagstaff, has consumed more than 58 square miles and is 1% contained.

"The concern is the dry vegetation, extremely dry weather," Chief Deputy Mike Johnson with the Gila County Sheriff's Office told KSAZ. "The fire has actually moved a lot quicker than what we expected."

Evacuations remain in place for the Telegraph Fire, burning south of Globe in central Arizona. The fire, which began June 4, has burned more than 280 square miles. It is 87% contained.

Residents also remain out of their homes because of the Walnut Fire near Dragoon, the Pinnacle Fire west of Safford, and the Wyrick Fire northwest of Heber.

California

The Willow Fire, one of seven large wildfires burning in California, forced evacuations in Monterey County. Among those ordered to leave were the Buddhist monks of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.

However, a group of seven firefighting monks stayed behind to protect the monastery, the AP reported. The group formed in 2008 when a fire reached the monastery and a dozen stayed behind to defend it.

They are clearing brush and running a sprinkler system called “Dharma rain” that keeps the area around buildings damp, said Sozan Miglioli, president of San Francisco Zen Center, which operates the monastery.

The fire, which began Thursday, has burned 4.5 square miles and is 0% contained, according to Inciweb. Its cause has not been determined.

Evacuations also have been ordered in Inyo County because of the Inyo Creek Fire, which began with a lightning strike Friday.

Hikers were still being evacuated Tuesday night from the Whitney Portal trailhead near the community of Lone Pine.

The fire has burned only 1 square mile, but it's burning in inaccessible, steep, rocky terrain, according to Inciweb.

Colorado

Five large fires currently burning in Colorado have consumed more than 20 square miles.

The largest is the Oil Springs Fire, which began Friday with a lightning strike. The fire, burning near the Colorado-Utah border, has burned more than 11.5 square miles and forced evacuations.

The West Fire quickly exploded to nearly 5 square miles in size after erupting Sunday and spreading across the state line into southwest Wyoming, according to Inciweb.

The Routt County Sheriff's Office ordered evacuations early Wednesday because of the Muddy Slide Fire, which began Sunday. It has burned 1.6 square miles.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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