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How We Fight Wildfires

September 1, 2015

A wildfire can burn more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit; that’s more than twice as hot as the surface of Venus. Its flames can reach more than 50 meters high.

Wildfires can get so big that they create their own weather systems, with hurricane force winds. On the ground, the average wildfire moves twice as fast as the average person can run.  

How do wildland firefighters tame such an inferno?

It’s been a summer of record-breaking heat and extreme drought across much of the West. Already this year more than 43,000 wildfires have burned more than 8.2 million acres. That’s about 50 percent more than the average acreage burned in the last decade.  

And there’s another month of the typical fire season to come.

Sixty-five large fires are actively burning across eight states. U.S. wildland firefighters have been spread so thin that about 200 soldiers from Joint Base Lewis McChord have been called in to help. Canada, Australia and New Zealand have also sent help.

Firefighters put out most fires before they grow larger than a city block. But the 1 to 2 percent of fires that escape and become megafires are expensive -- they make up 30 percent of the annual costs of wildfire firefighting.

Federal, state, and local governments spend an estimated $4.7 billion a year on wildfire suppression.

-- Becca Freimuth, KCTS9/EarthFix, contributed to this report.

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The first wildland firefighters to arrive by ground are usually the "hotshots." They're assigned to the hottest parts of the fire.

MacGregor Campbell

Katie Campbell

Katie Campbell was the senior managing editor for video at Cascade Public Media and a founding reporter of the public media reporting partnership EarthFix. She covered environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest for more than six years, earning numerous regional and national journalism awards including eight regional Emmy Awards for reporting, photography and editing, a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Innovation and the 2015 international Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Katie currently works as a video journalist for the investigative journalism nonprofit organization ProPublica in New York City.

More stories by Katie Campbell

Becca Freimuth

Becca is interning with KCTS 9 while finishing up her Bachelor’s degree from Western Washington University in Visual Journalism. With a focus in video journalism, Becca is working with EarthFix to help produce a variety of stories. In spring 2015, Becca had one of her short documentaries screen at the National Film Festival for Talented Youth. Her next goal is to continue exploring online and multimedia journalism once finished with the internship and her undergrad.



More stories by Becca Freimuth