Officials predict longer fire season |

Officials predict longer fire season

Sue Major Holmes
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. ” The fire season has gotten longer throughout the West in the past few years.

It used to stretch from May into August or September, starting with blazes flaring up in the Southwest’s arid spring, said Rich Nieto, regional fire operations director for the South­west Coordination Center.

But now, fires touch off in April or earlier, and the season sometimes stretches into October, said Nieto, whose job entails allocating and moving ground-based firefighting resources.

“We have to adjust accordingly,” he said.

A longer season can’t be blamed solely on climate change or drought. More and more people want out of the cities and into the country ” which in the West often means a place in the forest.

That raises the potential of more fires started by humans ” cigarettes carelessly tossed from cars; camp­fires that aren’t dead out; fires meant to burn weeds or garbage that get away instead.

In New Mexico and Arizona, more than 1,300 human-caused fires had burned 291,232 acres and 225 light­ning- caused fires had charred 93,378 acres as of June 26.

New Mexico’s 2008 fire season has been driven partly by plentiful grass that sprang up in wet weather in 2007 but turned to tinder in this year’s dry, windy spring. The season began ear­ly with successive human-caused grass fires near Hobbs in January, February and March that burned tens of thousands of acres, led to evacua­tions and destroyed several homes.

Residents this past week evacuated the historic northern Arizona mining town of Crown King, where a wildfire ” believed started by a signal fire set by lost hikers ” burned several homes. Two successive fires in cen­tral New Mexico’s Manzano Moun­tains ” the first human-caused, the second sparked by lightning ” destroyed more than 60 houses in April and June.

In California, drought, high temperatures and lightning storms have contributed to more than 770 square miles being burned since June 20 in fires that have destroyed 64 homes and other buildings and threatened thousands more.

“What we’re concerned about now is California is very active at a much earlier date than it usually is,” said Don Smurthwaite, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

In addition, fire season is just beginning in the Great Basin states of Utah, Nevada, southern Idaho and eastern Oregon. As the summer moves on, the season will flow north into the Pacific Northwest as vegetation there dries out.

The fire center’s 2008 Wildland Fire Outlook forecasts significant fire activity in California, parts of Nevada, the northern Rocky Mountains, Texas and West Virginia.

“There’s the potential for more major fires by Septem­ber,” Smurthwaite said.

What’s at risk determines who gets what resources.

Top priority goes to fires with the potential to harm human life, Nieto said. Second, fire managers need to keep enough reserves home to tackle new fires and get them out before they grow. Lastly, they consider the pos­sibility a fire could destroy such things as major power lines, critical communication sites, cultural resources or special habitat.

The priorities sometimes prompt federal land man­agers to fight a smaller fire and send fewer resources to a larger one.

“A large fire may encompass a lot of area, but are there communities that could be endangered by that? There might not be,” said Nieto, who has gone through 25 fire seasons.

The U.S. Forest Service prepares for the heavy summer fire season well before it starts, hiring and training crews before it’s time to suppress flames. This year, that’s meant more than 20,000 seasonal firefighters nationwide.

The Forest Service’s 11 geographic regions help each other ” crews from Montana in the Northern Rockies Region, for example, have battled fires in New Mexico and Arizona this summer. As the Southwest fire season winds down with July rains, Southwest Region firefight­ers prepare to head north.

That’s the normal routine.

But on Tuesday, the fiery 2008 season and a forecast for more hot, dry, windy conditions in parts of the West prompted the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group, made up of top federal and state fire managers from various agencies, to raise the nationwide prepared­ness level to 5 ” the highest possible.

“At (level) 4 or 5, we start looking at national approach­es and how we allocate resources” such as hot shot crews or aircraft, Nieto said. It might mean mobilizing the National Guard because other resources are exhausted, he said.

New Mexico called on National Guard Black Hawk hel­icopters to drop huge water buckets on the Manzano Mountain fires and on Wednesday sent two of the heli­copters to California to help with its fires. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday ordered 200 guards­men to report for training to augment fire lines ” the first time troops there have been called to ground-based fire­fighting duty since 1977.

Daily conference calls work out priorities for crews and equipment, and the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Man­agement, Bureau of Indian Affairs, state agencies and oth­ers cooperate with each other, Nieto said.

The new level 5 designation was based on three crite­ria: major fire activity in three or more of the 11 geograph­ic areas; a large percentage of available fire crews and resources already committed; and an expectation that the fire season is only going to get worse, Smurthwaite said.

“All three boxes were checked ‘yes,'” he said.

The day of the designation, 95 large fires were burning more than a half million acres nationwide, the coordinat­ing group said.

Each geographic area also sets its own level ” current­ly at 5 in the Southwest and California. With northern Cal­ifornia’s fire season kicking off early, the Southwest is con­centrating on making sure it doesn’t lose the ability to attack fires as they start, before they grow, Nieto said.

The public never hears about hundreds of fires, often lightning-sparked, that are stopped before they burn more than a single tree or a few acres.

“You look at our initial attack success rate, we do very well with that,” Nieto said.

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