Fire officials brace for another smoky summer in the West |

Fire officials brace for another smoky summer in the West

RENO, Nev. (AP) – As wildfires rage in Florida and the Southeast, fire officials in the West are bracing for the worst – knowing their turn is coming as temperatures soar and humidity plummets.

”Conditions are actually worse than in 1999 and 2000 when fires devastated the West and Nevada,” state Forester Firewarden Steve Robinson said Thursday.

Most of the West had a second dry winter, but has greened up slightly.

Now, things are turning brown as unseasonable temperatures in the 80s and 90s are pushing the region from California to Montana quickly into summer. Reno has set five record highs this month alone.

”What the national fire season usually does is it kind of migrates across the country,” said Mike Apicello, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

”It begins in the early spring in the southern tier of states and then usually about this time, it’ll travel through Texas and through the Southwest – they’re starting to get a little drier.

”We bring on people and supplies and get them ready for the imminent season.”

Texas state forester Jim Hull, who’s chairman of the fire committee for the National Association of State Foresters, said fire bosses would be even more aggressive this year in attacking fires.

”It looks like we could be in for it again,” he said. ”We’ll be monitoring conditions much better and to keep fires as small as possible, we’ll be making a rapid attack. We want to keep some of those gigantic fires from reaching that stage.”

So far this year, about 600,000 acres have burned across the nation – half in Florida, according to the fire center in Boise. That’s slightly below the five-year average.

Last year’s total of 7.4 million acres burned was about twice normal. In 1999, wild fires scorched 5.6 million acres.

In Montana, where 655,000 acres burned during last August’s glimpse of hell, Jack Peters, supervisor of the Division of Forestry’s fire suppression section, is seeing a generally light snowpack and frightening conditions.

”We’re not looking too great. We could have a nasty season unless the weather patterns change,” he said.

Along with warm temperatures and no precipitation, he said rivers, lakes and reservoirs are down.

”We fear water supplies are going to be short this year,” he said.

While air tankers load up at airports with a wet slurry to drop on flames, helicopters and tanker trucks rely on the closest source of water.

Fires have claimed only 5,100 acres so far this year in Montana, but have burned with an intensity unusual for this early in the season.

To the west, fire officials in Nevada and the nearby Sierra also expressed concerns about the wildland conditions after two fires earlier this month.

”Conditions will soon be ripe for the kind of fires we’ve experienced in mid-July,” said Steve Frady of the Nevada Division of Forestry.

Lightning sparked a 335-acre fire east of Minden on May 11 which exploded quickly, but was stopped with the help of cool nighttime temperatures, higher humidity than normal and a light shower.

A day earlier, crews in the Sierra were able to hold a fire southeast of Loyalton to 330 acres despite anxious moments.

”We are a month or two ahead in terms of dryness,” said Michael Baldrica, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman. ”Things are very dry and we are worried about the dryness in areas at lower altitudes, around roads.”

California launched its fire season Monday.

In Minden, Randy Scurry, manager of the Sierra Front Interagency Fire Center, just shook his head.

”I hate to guess, but if we get this kind of ignition and if the fuels are as dry as they are this early, we could be tested.”

On the Net:

National Interagency Fire Center:

The National Association of State Foresters:

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