Fire officials brace for scorching summer
By Doyle Rice, USA TODAY
Updated: 5/2/2008 4:36 PM

With more than 1 million acres burned by wildfires across the USA already this year — more than double the amount burned by this time in 2007 — fire officials are preparing for a devastating summer.

The potential for above-normal summer wildfire activity is greatest in the Southwest, Southern California, the northern Rockies and the High Plains, reports Rick Ochoa, program manager at the National Interagency Fire Center, which released its summer wildfire forecast on Thursday.

The remainder of the country should see normal fire conditions, while no parts of the country are expected to have a below-normal wildfire season, according to the summer forecast.

ACROSS THE NATION: Fires rage, waters wane, snow on radar

So far this year, 1,283,763 acres have burned, mostly in West Texas and other parts of the Southwest. This is 61% more than the 10-year average of 795,918 acres, reports the fire center. As of Thursday afternoon, 13 wildfires were burning, scorching more than 100,000 acres. Most of the charred acreage is in the Southwest.

"In the short term, through May, wildfire conditions should be the worst in Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas," Ochoa said.

Ochoa's team bases its outlook on a combination of drought conditions, snowpack, fuel potential and the weather forecast.

"The wild card will be the weather in the West this summer," Ochoa said. "If the West has a warmer-than-normal June, we will see more areas at risk. A hot June can trump a cool, wet winter in the West."

Here are some regional highlights:

• California: Southern California fire officials are bracing for a fire season that "has the potential to be the worst year ever," according to Fire Capt. Julie Hutchinson of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. This follows on the heels of the hellish wildfires near San Diego last October, when 10 people were killed and nearly 2,200 homes were destroyed in wind-whipped blazes that burned about 800 square miles.

Hutchinson said the rain that Southern California received earlier this year helped sprout a lot of vegetation that has already dried up. This could cause the peak fire season to start now, instead of the typical summertime months. "There's grass on the hillsides that hasn't been there for four years," she warned.

• Arizona: Over the past decade in Arizona, a combination of drought, global warming and population growth led to more giant wildfires than ever. The blazes have become such a common and catastrophic threat that the state has convened an annual conference each April where experts issue forecasts and plan the emergency response.

At this year's meeting in mid-April, state forester Kirk Rowdabaugh said a wet winter brought good news for the high-country forests, but potential trouble in southeast grasslands and the Sonoran Desert near Phoenix and Tucson.

Rowdabaugh said that January and February storms left much of Arizona's sprawling Ponderosa pine country in good condition, with 129% of the average snowpack. But, at lower elevations, unexpected downpours spawned a bloom of foliage that already has turned brittle, thanks to hot spring winds, Rowdabaugh reported.

The result: Rowdabaugh said a rash of brush blazes kicked off the season weeks earlier than normal, with a crew near Flagstaff even getting stuck in snow while enroute to a fire in mid-April. "We are seeing an ever-increasing length in Arizona's wildfire season," Rowdabaugh said. "March was incredibly dry this year. ... We're going to see fire in the desert."

• Nevada: At Lake Tahoe along the California-Nevada border, where an explosive wildfire destroyed 254 homes in June 2007, officials are bracing for another potentially dangerous fire season.

While the Sierra mountain range had a much better winter for snowfall than it did in 2007, it still ended up with only 80% to 90% of an average snowpack, said Greg McKay, president of the Lake Tahoe Regional Fire Chief's Association.

"That's basically the second dry year in a row," said McKay, adding that fire districts around Lake Tahoe are preparing personnel and equipment should another major fire hit this summer.

"We've been gearing up for the last couple months. We'll do the best we can," McKay said.

• High Plains: In Missoula, Mont., the U.S. Forest Service hopes to reduce the risk of out-of-control fires this year, ironically, by increasing the number of fires it allows to burn, said George Weldon, deputy director of fire, aviation and air. Last year, 94,000 acres were managed under the so-called Wildfire Use Program. The purpose is to help rejuvenate the fire-dependent ecosystem while reducing the buildup of dead trees and undergrowth. "It reduces the risk of large, severe fires in the future that could threaten communities," Weldon said.

The region includes 13 national forests and grasslands in Montana, North Dakota and portions of South Dakota and Idaho. Last year, $157 million was spent fighting wildfires that raged over 600,000 acres.

• Florida: As of Thursday, the Florida Division of Forestry reported that 875 wildfires have burned so far this year, scorching 15,575 acres. The agency protects about 21 million acres of state and private land from wildfires, said Ralph Crawford, the agency's assistant chief of forest protection.

"We've been taking advantage of the favorable weather earlier this spring by conducting prescribed burns. For the first quarter of this calendar year, we've prescribe-burned 1.2 million acres across the state of Florida," Crawford said.

Florida's fire season typically peaks in May and June, before summertime rains become frequent, he said. "We're looking at a two-month period with very little precipitation coming our way. Our folks are ready, and our equipment's ready," Crawford added.

Contributing: Jeff Delong, Reno Gazette-Journal; Karl Puckett, Great Falls Tribune; Stefanie Frith, The Desert Sun, Palm Springs, Calif.; Rick Neale, Florida Today; Dennis Wagner, The Arizona Republic, Phoenix.

Original article: USA Today
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