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Solar eclipse 2017: Fire brigades on high alert amid fears event could bring down forests

Forest rangers and other officials are facing an unprecedented challenge

Andrew Griffin
Friday 18 August 2017 09:42 BST
Flames rip through the Siskiyou National Forest after Hot Shot fire crews lit a burnout fire August 4, 2002 in O'Brien, Oregon
Flames rip through the Siskiyou National Forest after Hot Shot fire crews lit a burnout fire August 4, 2002 in O'Brien, Oregon (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Forest rangers are on high alert amid fears that the eclipse could encourage wildfires to spread across the US.

Tourists are flocking to western states like Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming, ready for the sky to go dark as the moon moves in front of the sun. But they will bring unprecedented challenges with them: with blocked roads and strained resources adding to already significant worries.

The region is already carpeted by dry wood that experts worry could light anyway. But the extra worries added by unattended campfires, discarded cigarettes, hot tailpipes and all the other danger that new campers bring.

"It's all hands on deck," said U.S. Forest Service ranger Kurt Nelson, who works in the Sawtooth National Forest near the affluent resort of Sun Valley in central Idaho.

The eclipse will arrive on the west coast of the US on 21 August, going on to spread across the country. It will be the first time such an event has been visible at all in the lower 48 states since 1979 – and the first in 99 years that will sweep across the whole country.

The excitement is leading to what is expected to be the biggest movement of people for tourism reasons in history. People are travelling to the US to take in the sight, and even those who live in the country are driving thousands of miles to make sure they see the total eclipse.

Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming are the first three states traversed by the narrow 2,500-mile "path of totality," mostly through rural areas unaccustomed to heavy traffic.

Roads through Idaho's Sawtooth, for example, are likely to see bumper-to-bumper traffic in the days before and during the eclipse, Nelson said.

That has prompted a regional hospital to park a life-flight helicopter nearby in case of a medical emergency. Extra firefighting crews are also on standby.

Months of bone-dry heat have already brought restrictions on campfires and smoking in many Western forests. But authorities see the fire risks ratcheting up with the influx of travelers, few of whom may understand the dangers.

A wildfire in Oregon's Willamette National Forest prompted the closure this month of access to Mount Jefferson, the state's second-highest peak and a would-be destination for those hoping to see the total eclipse, said Kirk Copic, visitor services information assistant for the forest.

On Thursday, a separate blaze 30 miles south near the town of Sisters, Oregon, also in the path of totality, prompted Governor Kate Brown to invoke the state's Emergency Conflagration Act, freeing up additional firefighting resources. She cited the need "to keep community, visitors and property safe" in the run-up to the eclipse.

In Idaho, state police spokesman Tim Marsano warned that first responders there may not be able to help travelers as quickly as in a normal situation, adding, "The 911 system is going to be pushed to its limit."

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In the Sawtooth alone, forest rangers expect as many as 30,000 people to inundate an area around the small town of Stanley, home to just 68 year-round residents.

Nelson said the grass has been mowed down in eight eclipse-viewing areas set up for the public, to ensure fire-safe temporary roadside parking.

Smoke from wildfires already burning in Idaho, Oregon, Montana and elsewhere could impair eclipse-viewing for some, but forecasters say smoke conditions, driven largely by wind speeds and direction, will remain uncertain until a day or two before.

The sun will be so high in the sky that smoke should be of little consequence, unless it's extremely thick, said Michael Zeiler, an avowed "eclipse-chaser" who made a 650-mile (1,000- km) drive, to Casper, Wyoming from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in hopes of witnessing his ninth total solar eclipse.

"This will be the most amazing event you have seen in your life," said Zeiler, a member of an American Astronomical Society panel for public guidance.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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