Increased fire expected in parts of Western US

AP Photo/Matt York James Honanie, of the Flagstaff Hot Shots, removes fuel from the path of the Schultz Fire Monday, June 21, 2010 in Flagstaff, Ariz. More than 300 firefighters are battling the Northern Arizona blaze.

Wildfires are becoming more difficult to tame

By CAROL RYAN DUMAS

Capital Press

With a lower-than-normal snowpack, portions of the Western United States are drier than normal and have an increased risk of wildfires in the 2010 fire season, said Rick Ochoa, meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Portions of northeast California and a large area in northern Idaho, western Montana, western Wyoming and northeastern Washington are at higher-than-normal risk this season.

The wet, cool spring, however, will delay the fire season in the northern Rockies to an August/September time frame and a July/August time frame in northeastern California and western Nevada. Although Nevada had a dry winter, a below-normal fire season is predicted because dry weather has prevented normal desert grass growth.

Higher than normal fire activity is also predicted for the southwestern half of Arizona and the southern California deserts before the monsoon season begins in mid-July.

This week, fire crews were fighting a blaze near Flagstaff, Ariz. Two hotshot crews from Idaho were dispatched to the so-called Schultz Fire in Arizona to help battle the fire.

Below-normal activity is predicted for others areas of the Southwest and the Great Basin of California.

"That does not mean we're not going to see fires in those areas. It just means by the end of the season we'll see fewer numbers of fires and fewer acres burned," Ochoa said.

On the national front, USDA and the Interior Department stand ready to meet the challenge.

More than 18,000 firefighters are available this year, with aircraft and ground equipment strategically assigned and ready to respond and move as wildfires occur, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said.

In a joint press conference last week, Vilsack told reporters on average, USDA Forest Service responds to 10,000 wildfires a year, suppressing 98 percent on the initial response.

But the challenge is growing. Wildfires are becoming more complex and extreme due to a century of fire exclusion, weed and insect infestation, climate change and population movement, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.

"They're starting earlier, lasting longer and burning faster and hotter," he said.

Of particular concern are wildfires in wildland/urban interfaces in the West, Vilsack said. This year, 70,000 communities are at risk for wildfires.

In the past 10 years, wildfires have destroyed nearly 28,000 homes, businesses and outbuildings. Wildfires can threaten power grids, interrupt commerce and put people out of work, Salazar said. Tens of millions of Americans depend on national forest watersheds for drinking water, and repairing damage to watersheds caused by extreme wildfires can cost millions and take a lifetime for vegetation to grow back.

While federal agencies, states, local governments and tribal partners are developing a cohesive strategic plan to suppress and prevent wildfires, communities and landowners also need to do their part.

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