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Wildfires have burned 5.6 million acres in the U.S. this year, and concerns are growing amid a heat wave

Only two other years in the last decade have produced as many scorched acres to date across the U.S.
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California hasn't had a typical megafire with six-figure acreage this year, but vast blazes across the U.S. have combined to make 2022 a contender for one of the most incendiary years in the last decade.

The week’s ongoing heat wave, expected to produce stifling conditions and triple-digit temperatures for parts of the Southeast, the Northwest and some regions in between, has the potential to help spark or grow additional fires.

As of Tuesday, fires had consumed 5.6 million acres nationwide, about twice the acreage burned last year to date and three times the fire footprint to date in 2020, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The country’s 84 large fires still active Tuesday are responsible for a majority of the acres — more than 3 million — burned so far this year.

Only two other years in the last decade had acreage losses above 5 million by July 26: 2017, at 5.2 million acres, and 2015, at 5.6 million.

By year’s end, 2015 had burned 10.13 million acres — the most since 1960, National Interagency Coordination Center data shows. The years 2020 and 2017 ranked second and third.

Federal officials warned Tuesday of fertile fire conditions from coast to coast and reminded people that human action is the most common ignition for wildfires.

"As record temperatures and very dry fuels continue to be reported in many states, wildland firefighters need everyone to do their part to prevent wildfires," the National Interagency Fire Center said in a statement.

More than 34,000 of the more than 38,000 wildfires in the U.S. to date were caused by human action, the center said.

Firefighters mop up hot spots Monday while battling the Oak Fire in the Jerseydale community of Mariposa County, Calif.
Firefighters mop up hot spots Monday while battling the Oak Fire in the Jerseydale community of Mariposa County, Calif.Noah Berger / AP

Federal officials have eyes on major fires across the West, including two new blazes in Montana, as well as Idaho’s Moose Fire, which has burned more than 37,000 acres since it started July 17.

California's largest fire this year, Mariposa County's 18,000-acre Oak Fire, was 26% contained Tuesday as firefighters stunted southern movement and focused on the fire's march into the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Despite taking out 41 structures so far, the blaze has failed in recent days to show the explosive growth it displayed in its first 24 hours, when it grew from a 60-acre dustup Friday to a 12,000-acre cauldron Saturday. Its plume could be seen from space.

Federal, state and local firefighters and support crews, numbering more than 400, drew a line to stop the Oak Fire's progress at Footman Ridge, about 50 miles west-southwest of Yosemite National Park, officials said.

"It's extremely hot, it's extremely steep terrain, but nobody has given up," Justin Macomb, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection section chief for the region, said in a video briefing Tuesday.

Yet California, which has seen a string of years with six-figure-acreage fires, has so far this year avoided blazes as big as behemoths of recent history, which include 2020's August Complex Fire, alone responsible for scorching more than 1 million acres.

It's not clear why this year has been less incendiary in the state. Fire years have generally gotten worse in lockstep with climate change and the continued warming of the planet.

A 2009 analysis published in the journal Forest Ecology and Management concluded that most regions of world it examined will soon "face moderate fire potential for the entire year" and not just for a few months in summer and fall.

The idea is consistent with the California-like fire seasons in recent years in Washington, Oregon and New Mexico.

As climate change has helped to produce most of the planet's 10 hottest years since the start of the 2010s, it has also helped to produce ideal fire temperatures and ideal fuel on the ground — dry, brittle and ready for exothermic reaction.

The 10 largest wildfires in California have also all happened since 2010.

With record high temperatures possible and lightning forecast for some areas of the Pacific Northwest this week, officials in Oregon and Washington are telling residents to be alert.

The Washington State Department of Transportation tweeted Tuesday, "Don't park in tall grass," lest your car spark a fire.

The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center for wildfires, based in Portland, Oregon, said in a statement Tuesday, "Southwestern Oregon, central and eastern [areas] will have elevated significant fire potential through the week due to the hot, dry weather."

It warned of potential "high risk for new significant fires."