As fall hunting season opens across the country, the American West is currently experiencing its worst wildfire season in decades. California is in the midst of its driest period in the past 500 years, enabling fires to rage across vast parts of the state. The largest wildfire in Washington state history, the Okanogan complex fire, has now consumed more than 256,000 acres. Six states are reporting active large fires, with more than 1.4 million acres currently burning from Oklahoma to California.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, over 8.9 million acres have burned in wildfires in the United States to date, an area larger than Maryland. This is significantly higher than the previous 10-year average (around 5.9 million acres annually). Alaska accounts for the bulk of the fire activity, with over 5 million acres burned, in what is estimated to have been its worst fire season ever recorded. Fire management personnel have come from as far as Australia and New Zealand to provide support to fire fighting efforts. For the first time since 2006, active duty US military members have been authorized to assist in fire fighting efforts.
Western states rarely close or alter hunting seasons due to wildfire. But hunters venturing into the field should expect access restrictions or road closures in some areas. Hunters should also exercise extreme caution in dry forest conditions so as not to accidently start wildfires. The Idaho Fish and Game Department cautions hunters that even though recent rains may have extinguished some fires and some access restrictions have been lifted, road and trail closures may still be in place, limiting access to some hunting units. Many agencies, such as the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will work with hunters who have special permits if active fires prohibit access to game management areas for the duration of the season. Hunters should check with their local state wildlife agencies before planning their fall hunts.
Over the long run, wildfires can benefit species like deer, elk and bighorn sheep, by providing an abundance of early successional habitat and increased forage. Some habitats, such as the longleaf pine-wiregrass woodlands of the Southeast, are fire dependent, requiring fire to live and thrive. In this system, fire helps keep the shrubs and woody plants low in stature and promotes more open woods that are dominated by grasses. However, fires that are too intense or occur too frequently can significantly alter habitat and impact ecosystems, particularly in habitats that are not adapted to more frequent fire. Wildlife need time to recover from the impact of fire, and when fire becomes too frequent or too intense, populations can suffer.
In addition to impacts on habitat and wildlife, the cost of fighting these massive wildfires is immense, both in terms of cash and in human lives. The US Forest Service spent over $243 million in a single week in August fighting fires, and now estimates that it spends over half of its overall budget on firefighting. Unfortunately this money is being diverted from the agency’s forest restoration funds, which means the impact on habitat and wildlife could ultimately be even worse.
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