Fire officials brace for uncertainty of fire season |

Fire officials brace for uncertainty of fire season

Emily Aughinbaugh

Although fire officials aren’t ready to definitively forecast fire danger levels, many are concerned dry winter months will mean increased fire potential this summer.

Matt Mathes, press officer for the Pacific Southwest Regional Headquarters of the U.S. Forest Service, said historically when the snowpack was less than 50 percent of normal this time of year, the fire season was worse than usual. The Sierra snowpack is now at about 40 percent, and Mathes said mountain ranges to the north are even worse off.

When the snowpack is low and melting occurs early, Mathes said vegetation dries out more quickly and a bad fire season is more probable.

“We have the potential for an unusually severe fire season this year,” he said. “The snowpack only sets the stage. The other thing we need is ignitions.”

High temperatures, wind and humidity combined with lightning are typically to blame for wildfires.

Since California is a fire-adapted ecosystem- it depends on fire to renew itself- some blazes are inevitable.

“California is cool and damp in the winter and dry and hot in the summer,” Mathes said. “When nobody lived here that wasn’t really a problem, but now 33 million people live here and that becomes a problem.”

Bryan Zollner, deputy chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the long range forecast for California’s weather predicts above average temperatures and below average precipitation.

Zollner said above average rainfall in the southern part of the state has already produced increased grass growth, which fuels fire.

About 1,500 acres of forest in California has already been consumed by fire in 2001- just a fraction of the 168,355 acres nationwide.

Zollner and other fire officials are hoping spring rains and Congressional funding will keep this fire season from becoming as severe as years past.

More than 7 million acres of public land burned in thousands of wild land fires last summer.

“The variables so far this year don’t paint a pretty picture,” Zollner said. “Right now Mother Nature is the determining factor for us.”

A $65 million addition to the fire fighting budget for the national forest in California might also help to keep blazes controlled.

Part of a $1.1 billion national fire plan Congress approved in late 2000, California’s stipend will go to 18 national forests in addition to its standard firefighting budget of $118 million.

The Carson Ranger District will get $3 million to pay for 10 new engines and 65 firefighters.

Nationally, the Forest Service expects to hire 3,500 people, 1,000 of whom will obtain permanent positions.

Mathes said money has already gone to hire handcrews, helicopters and engines.

“We expect to use this money effectively to protect people and the forest,” he said. “But there’s still going to be fires this summer. We can’t prevent the top 2 percent. However, the money’s timing looks good given the early fire season.”

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