Long summer of wildfires puts strain on firefighters, budgets

Los Angeles fire captain Ron Reed and other Southern California firefighters have been working long days all summer to battle dozens of blazes, with no end in sight.
CBS News

(CBS News) SAN GABRIEL MOUNTAINS, Calif. - Summer is nearly over, but the wildfire season in the West is still going strong.

Forty wildfires are burning from Southern California to Montana. Nationally, 45,000 fires have left more than 8 million acres scorched.

After months of putting out blazes and no end in sight, firefighters are exhausted and budgets are strained.

In the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles, the flames that consumed 4,100 acres this week are now largely out, but firefighters are still hunting for hotspots.

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L.A. County fire captain Ron Reed has been on the front lines from dawn to dusk since Sunday.

"Some steep, ugly country back in here," Reed said. "Big brush, big fuel types, very hard to contain fires."

Their commute to the fire line begins with an hour long hike, lugging 35 pounds of gear up a 3,000-foot mountain.

Despite the physical toll the job takes, Reed said he pursued this line of work because of "the excitement of a wild land fire."

Wildfires in 12 states have burned almost 2 million more acres than in an average year. The season has stretched the limits of firefighters and budgets.

"We all think about the worst possible scenario -- what could go wrong?" Reed said.

California budgeted $93 million for wildfires this year but has already gone through $114 million. Montana, Washington and Utah have also burned through their firefighting budgets.

This week, Chris Fernandez of the U.S. Forest Service Sierra Hotshots has been putting in 16-hour days. He said he's been in Idaho, Utah, Arizona and up and down California.

"If you don't like the long hours, the hard work, the sun, being outside - it's probably not going to be the job for you, Fernandez said.

When asked if he ever gets tired, Reed said, "Oh yeah, all the time. I'm a little tired right now."

But it could be months until the firefighters can get some rest. California's Santa Ana winds are beginning to blow, increasing the danger of wildfires there through January.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.