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The Carlton Complex Fire burns on the side of a mountain on July 20 in Carlton, Wash. / Madeleine Meyer, AP

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Surrounded by walls of maps and computers, employees at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in downtown Portland certainly have their hands full.

Dozens of wildfires, including the largest in Washington state history, are still burning in Oregon and Washington. The Carlton Complex Fire has already destroyed more than 300 homes and 400 square miles of land in central Washington. The Buzzard Complex wildfire, in eastern Oregon, is the largest in the country.

Top fire and forestry officials say that these mega fires are a prime example of what has quickly become the "new normal."

"Folks are telling me we can't use historic fire behavior anymore to predict future fire behaviors. Everything's changed," said Jerry Perez, director of the Bureau of Land Management for Oregon and Washington.

Perez was one of many wildfire agency leaders who briefed Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on what's quickly becoming a historically bad fire season.

Data at the briefing showed wildfires are burning hotter and fire seasons are now 70 days longer than they were just 15 years ago.

"We had fire evacuations on the north Oregon coast in January this year, that used to be unheard of," said Jeff Walter, director of the National Forest Service for Washington and Oregon. "We're also seeing different plants and trees in the forest as the landscape gets drier."

Top wildfire officials hope Wyden can pass legislation changing the way agencies are funded to battle fires.

Right now, budgets are based on average costs over 10 years, but they've underestimated costs eight out of the past 10 years.

Agencies are being forced to take money out of fire prevention funds, which are supposed to be used to thin trees and clear brush.

"You've got the prevention fund constantly being shorted and then you guys can't do your thinning work in the woods and then massive fires pop up from all the extra fuel," said Wyden.

Under a bill co-sponsored by Wyden and Idahol Sen. Mike Crapo, the massive mega fires would instead be funded out of the natural disaster budget.

"A bill like what the senator is working on allows us to keep that money doing these thinning and clearing projects and also put out the fires," Walter said.

Wyden is also pushing the Senate to approve an additional $615 million to pay for what's already been a fire year for the record books.



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Longer, hotter Northwest fire seasons are 'new normal'

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