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Raging Western Wildfires Are Burning Through Firefighting Budgets

As dozens of wildfires continued to blaze across the West on Monday, officials worried about the pace of this year’s wildfires and the resources available to fight them.
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As dozens of wildfires continue to blaze across the West, evacuations remained in effect Monday in Oregon, National Guard troops were called in to Washington State and active duty military personnel were mobilized in Idaho.

Officials, meanwhile, worried about the pace of this year’s wildfires — and the resources available to fight them. The U.S. Forest Service says they are spending over $100 million a week on fires and will burn through the annual blaze-battling budget within a week.

“We’re out of crews, we’re out of engines, we’re out of helicopters,” said Carol Connolly, a spokeswoman with the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, which works with state and federal agencies to fight wildfires in Oregon and Washington State.

On Department of Forestry land in Oregon, there had already been 790 fires and nearly 30,000 acres burned this year, a statistic that could match the state’s worst wildfire year — 2013 — in more than half a century, said Rod Nichols, a department spokesman.

“This year, we’re having a lot of fire, but so are the neighboring states,” Nichols told NBC News. “Resources are being spread very thin. We’re already seeing a scarcity of aircraft, hand crews and heavy equipment.”

According to the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Forest Service is now spending more than half its budget on fighting wildfires and fire seasons are 78 days longer than they were 40 years ago.

“We now have more communities that have been located in and around one of our forests,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a release. “Hazardous fuel build-up has increased in part because of climate change. We see drier conditions.”

Vilsack on Friday said he wants Congress to use a separate federal disaster fund to pay for the worst 2 percent of wildfires, which eat up a big part of the Forest Service firefighting budget.

The House passed a bill last month to let the Forest Service use disaster funds when it drains its fire budget. But Vilsack said that doesn't go far enough because firefighting would continue to grow as share of the total budget under the current system.

In Chelan, a town between Seattle and Spokane where several weekend fires forced 1,500 evacuations and dozens of homes were feared to have burned, longtime farmer Nels Soderstrom saw those conditions firsthand.

“The weather has become more violent,” said Soderstrom, whose home burned in the recent fires. “Huge thunderstorms. Torrential rainfall. Drought.”

He added, “We still have a beautiful piece of land, but we‘re leery of rebuilding because of the potential for firestorms.”