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U.S. nears wildfire record with more than 9 million acres burned

| Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015, 9:36 p.m.
A helicopter makes a water drop on a wildfire hot spot Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015, in Carmel Valley, Calif. The blaze burning north of the community of Jamesburg quickly grew after starting Saturday afternoon, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said. (Vern Fisher/The Monterey County Herald via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
A helicopter makes a water drop on a wildfire hot spot Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015, in Carmel Valley, Calif. The blaze burning north of the community of Jamesburg quickly grew after starting Saturday afternoon, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said. (Vern Fisher/The Monterey County Herald via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

The amount of land burned by wildfires in the nation this year has surpassed 9 million acres, according to data released Thursday by the National Interagency Fire Center.

It is only the fourth time on record that the country has reached the 9 million-acre mark, center spokesman Randall Eardley wrote in an email. The area burned is about equivalent to the size of New Jersey and Connecticut combined.

All of the top years for acres burned have occurred since 2000, Eardley said. The worst year occurred in 2006, with 9.8 million acres. In 2007 and 2012, 9.3 million acres were burned, he said. If 800,000 acres more are burned this year, an all-time record would be set.

Accurate wildfire records go back to 1960. Before 2000, the United States surpassed 7 million acres only one time — in 1963.

“The year 2000 seems to have been a turning point in the number of acres we've seen burned,” Eardley said.

The fire season this year has been unusually severe in the Northwest. Wildfires there destroyed dozens of homes and forced hundreds of residents to evacuate, sometimes for weeks on end.

The season included the largest fire in the history of Washington state, the Okanogan Complex fire, which killed three firefighters. Devastating fires in California have killed at least 7 people this month, reported Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack have called the 2015 fire season a disaster for the number of firefighter lives lost as well as destroyed homes and natural resources.

The report about the 9 million-acre mark occurs as competing forest management bills make their way through Congress and firefighting costs approach an all-time high.

Republicans are backing a bill in Congress that would reduce environmental review of projects to speed up tree-thinning work meant to improve forest health while reducing wildfire risk. The bill, known as the Resilient Federal Forest Act of 2015, would limit what they describe as obstructionist litigation over forest projects.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resource Committee and bill co-sponsor, said Wednesday that policy changes are needed to reduce the number of lawsuits and lengthy environmental reviews in order to speed the pace of timber thinning projects that he argues would improve forest health and make them more fire-resistant.

A bill backed by Democrats, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, has been introduced in the House and Senate. It would overhaul federal wildfire policy, increase funding for prevention and ensure large forest fires are treated and funded as natural disasters.

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