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"More damaging, more costly" wildfires scorch parts of western U.S. and Canada

Some North Dakota residents woke up to a smoky haze as wildfires continue to devastate parts of the western U.S. and Canada.

The Bismarck National Weather Service reports that smoke concentration will hover for most of Wednesday reducing air quality and visibility.

Meteorologists say noticeable relief will come with rain in the coming days.

Wildfires are chewing across dried-out western forests and grassland. More than 47,000 wildfires have burned more than 8 million acres across the country, with much of the devastation in California, Oregon and Montana.

As of Tuesday, 62 large fires were burning across nine western states, with 20 fires in Montana and 17 in Oregon, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Nearly half the large fires in the west reported zero acreage gains on Monday, helping firefighters across the west make progress towards containing them, the agency said.   

On Saturday, firefighters confirmed the La Tuna Fire, which charred nearly 7,200 acres near Burbank, California, was at full containment, according to CBS Los Angeles. Meanwhile, CBS Denver reports three major fires burning in southwestern Colorado prompted health warnings about poor air quality over the weekend. 

Wildfires rage in 8 Western states 02:03

Wildfire smoke and the danger of new fires have prompted federal wildlife managers to postpone the annual roundup at the National Bison Range in western Montana.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the roundup was scheduled for Oct. 2 and 3. No new date has been set.

Range manager Jeff King says the smoke makes the air unhealthy for humans and the horses used in the roundup. He says new fires could ignite from sparks created when horseshoes strike rocks or from the all-terrain vehicles used in the roundup.

Up to 500 bison live on the range. They are rounded up annually to check their health, and surplus animals are donated or sold.

The range covers about 29 square miles on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke directed all land managers and park superintendents to be more aggressive in cutting down small trees and underbrush to prevent wildfires as the smoke-choked West faces one of the worst fire seasons in a decade. 

In a memo, Zinke said the Trump administration will take a new approach and work proactively to prevent fires "through aggressive and scientific fuels reduction management" to save lives, homes and wildlife habitat.

The Forest Service and Interior Department have spent more than $2.1 billion so far this year fighting fires — about the same as in all of 2015, which was the most expensive wildfire season on record. Those figures do not include individual state spending.

In Montana, where more than 90 percent of the state is in drought, the state has spent more than $50 million on fire suppression since June, with fires likely to burn well into the fall.

Oregon has spent $28 million, but expects to be reimbursed for part of that by the federal government and others.

Exacerbated by drought and thick vegetation, wildfires are "more damaging, more costly and threaten the safety and security of both the public and firefighters," Zinke said. "I have heard this described as 'a new normal.' It is unacceptable that we should be satisfied with the status quo." 

Time-lapse video shows wildfire incinerate forest 00:37

Zinke's memo did not call for new spending, but he said federal officials "must be innovative" and use all tools available to prevent and fight fires. "Where new authorities are needed," he added, "we will work with our colleagues in Congress to craft management solutions that will benefit our public lands for generations to come." 

The Interior Department oversees more than 500 million acres supervised by the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies. The Forest Service, a unit of the Agriculture Department, is the nation's largest firefighting agency, with more than half its budget devoted to wildfires.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and western lawmakers have complained that the current funding mechanism — tied to 10-year averages for wildfire — makes it hard to budget for wildfires, even as fires burn longer and hotter each year. 

"I believe that we have the right processes and the right procedures of attacking and fighting fires," Perdue said in a speech last week. "But if you don't have the resources and the means of dependable funding, that's an issue."

Perdue has called on Congress "to fix the fire-borrowing problem once and for all" so that officials are not repeatedly forced to tap money meant for prevention programs to fight wildfires.

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