US Forest Service and Interior Department officials warned senators Thursday that the upcoming wildfire season would be worse than last year's, which left dozens of people dead in California, saying that "if we're lucky, this year will simply be a challenging one."
"It's hard to imagine a repeat of this experience, but this is the potential reality that we face again this year," said Jeff Rupert, director of the Office of Wildland Fire for the Interior Department, during his opening remarks at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing. "So it's difficult for me to sit here this morning and say that a challenging year is ahead of us because the wildfires that we're now experiencing are consistently more destructive than they've ever been."
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said the upcoming wildfire season will have "elevated wildfire activity," from June through September, according to a National Interagency Fire Center monthly wildland fire potential outlook released in early June.
"Some observers believe the stage is set for fire activity similar to the indescribable damage and staggering loss of life that we saw last year in Northern California," Murkowski said during her opening remarks.
Murkowski noted that there has been an uptick in wildfires across the country in the last week alone. She mentioned wildfires that have already started in her home state, Alaska, as well as parts of Arizona.
The senator cited some reasons for the uptick in wildfires over the past few years, including climate change, unhealthy landscapes that are overstocked with "excess fuels" and disease and insect outbreaks which leave trees behind that are "ready to ignite just like a matchstick," she said.
Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the ranking member of the committee, said wildfires are "burning longer" and "they are harder to control than just a few years ago."