Justin Silvera came off the fire lines in Northern California after a grueling 36 straight days battling wildfires and evacuating residents ahead of the flames. Before that, he and his crew had worked for 20 days, followed by a three-day break.
Silvera, a 43-year-old battalion chief with Cal Fire, California's state firefighting agency, said he's lost track of the blazes he's fought this year. He and his crew have sometimes been on duty for 64 hours at a stretch, their only rest coming in 20-minute catnaps.
"I've been at this 23 years, and by far this is the worst I've seen," Silvera said before bunking down at a motel for 24 hours. After working in Santa Cruz County, his next assignment was to head north to attack wildfires near the Oregon border.
His exhaustion reflects the situation on the West Coast fire lines: This year's blazes have taxed the human, mechanical and financial resources of the nation's wildfire-fighting forces to an extraordinary degree. And half of the fire season is yet to come. Heat, drought and a strategic decision to attack the flames early combined with the coronavirus to put a historically heavy burden on fire teams.
"There's never enough resources," said Silvera, one of nearly 17,000 firefighters battling the California blazes. "Typically with Cal Fire, we're able to attack — air tankers, choppers, dozers. We're good at doing that. But these conditions in the field, the drought, the wind, this stuff is just taking off. We can't contain one before another erupts."
Washington State Forester George Geissler says there are hundreds of unfulfilled requests for help throughout the West. Agencies are constantly seeking firefighters, aircraft, engines and support personnel.
Fire crews have been summoned from at least nine states and other countries, including Canada and Israel. Hundreds of agreements for agencies to offer mutual assistance have been maxed out at the federal, state and local levels, he said.
"We know that there's really nothing left in the bucket," Geissler said. "Our sister agencies to the south in California and Oregon are really struggling."
Demand for firefighting resources has been high since mid-August, when fire officials bumped the national preparedness level to critical, meaning at least 80% of crews were already committed to fighting fires, and there were few personnel and little equipment to spare.
Government spending on fighting wildfires has more than tripled since the 1990s, to an average of $1.8 billion annually. That's failed to reduce the problem as climate change, drought and millions of trees killed by pests led to more fires in the Western U.S. over the same period, particularly dangerous "megafires" that burn 100,000 acres (404 square kilometers) or more.
The growing severity has spurred federal lawmakers to push prevention efforts, including controlled burns, faster approval of logging projects and upgrading homes to make them more fire resistant.
"We are at a critical time: The West is burning. People are dying. The smoke is literally starting to cover our country, and our way of life as we know it is in danger," Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana said Wednesday during testimony in support of an emergency wildfire bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, that would direct more resources to prevention.
The smoke from dozens of wildfires in the western United States is stretching clear across the country — and even pushing into Mexico, Canada and Europe. While the dangerous plumes are forcing people inside along the West Coast, residents thousands of miles away in the East are seeing unusually hazy skies and remarkable sunsets.
The wildfires racing across tinder-dry landscape in California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington are extraordinary, but the long reach of their smoke isn't unprecedented. While there are only small pockets in the southeastern U.S. that are haze free, experts say the smoke poses less of a health concern for those who are farther away.