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Lake Isabella fire underscores Forest Service plea for wildfire disaster fund

Fire crews in central California are battling a massive wildfire that broke out Thursday, one day after the Forest Service warned that the drought has rendered the state's forests a dry tinderbox.

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A firefighting helicopter makes a water drop over a wildfire near Bradbury, Calif. on Wednesday. Cooler, more humid weather gave at least some temporary help Wednesday to crews battling dangerous wildfires in Southern California, while other blazes across the West were on the move.

Nick Ut/AP

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Wildfires destroyed at least 80 homes and threatened an additional 1,500 as flames tore through Central California's rural communities Friday, according to authorities.

The blaze broke out Thursday as temperatures rose to a 90-plus degrees F. dry heat, moving across a number of ridges and burning homes including some northeast of Bakersfield near Lake Isabella. It came just as others across western states were dying down.

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The fires again highlighted an ongoing plea from the United States Forest Service to have wildfires classified as "natural disasters" so it can fund its firefighting efforts from federal emergency money instead of its own programs, which are mainly meant for preventing fires. That call took on renewed urgency this week with the news that the drought and a beetle infestation have left millions of dead trees as perfect fuel for wildfire.

"Unless Congress acts now to address how we pay for firefighting, the Forest Service will not have the resources necessary to address the forest die-off and restore our forests," said Tom Vilsack, secretary of the Department of Agriculture, the parent agency of the Forest Service, in a statement Wednesday.

The rapid expansion of the Lake Isabella fire underscores how quickly wildfire can become a threat to people and property.

"I've never been in a wildland fire where I've seen so many homes burn," Kern County Fire Capt. Tyler Townsend told the Associated Press. "It's one of the most devastating I've ever seen."

The increasing intensity and frequency of fires, behind the Forest Service's push for more funding, have been attributed to a number of factors. For one, a beetle infestation has killed 66 million trees since 2010, turning portions of the California landscape into a tinder box.

Drought conditions – some experts say are exacerbated by the effects of climate change – as well homebuilding and other development being pushed into the so-called "wildland-urban interface," have added to the budgetary strain.

The Forest Service spent 56 percent of its budget last year on fire management, compared to 16 percent in 1995. The Forest Service said 2015 was the most expensive fire season in its history, costing them more than $2.6 billion, according to The Sacramento Bee.

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So far, as a result of the Lake Isabella fire, a few thousand people have been ordered to evacuate. No injuries had been reported at time of writing.

Some 350 firefighters were battling the blaze and hundreds more were on their way, according to fire-information site InciWeb.

Elsewhere, fires in nearby and in neighboring western states also burned.

Two fires burned more than 8 square miles of chaparral and brush in the Angeles National Forest and the populated foothills in northeast of Los Angeles.

Sizable blazes also burned in Colorado and eastern Arizona.

A fire in San Diego County burned 7,350 acres before firefighters were able to get a third of it under control leading to a lift in evacuation order for Portrero, a community near the Mexican border.

Firefighters have been sounding alarm that their budgets are not adequate to handle the increasingly number and intensity of fires that have scorched the West for some time. During last year's fire season, one Western congressman introduced a bill aimed at providing specific funding for wildfire response, as the Christian Science Monitor's Brad Knickerbocker reported at the time:

The situation, says US Rep. Mike Simpson (R) of Idaho, 'has created a devastating cycle that prevents agencies from doing needed hazardous fuels removal or timber harvests, leading to worse fires.'

Representative Simpson is the lead sponsor of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, a bill that would treat catastrophic wildfires like other natural disasters (floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.), funding suppression of such fires through emergency disaster programs.

Nearly a year later, the bill's status on the Congress website remains stagnant as "introduced."

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.