Wet winter eases fire season fears | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Wet winter eases fire season fears

Gregory Crofton

The wet winter and deep snowpack it left in the mountains means the Lake Tahoe Basin’s fire season is expected to be normal or less severe than normal this year.

“Here in the Sierra Nevada the fire weather outlook is for low risk,” said Rex Norman, public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “This is certainly in contrast to last year when, by May, we were already seeing near-record dry conditions.”

North of Tahoe is a different story. The Pacific Northwest, because it had a dry winter, is preparing for what forecasters say could be a very bad wildfire season. Therefore forest officials are asking whether the war in Iraq will crimp their ability to call on National Guard troops for fire duty.

There will be no crimping necessary because of the California National Guard, even though about half of its 21 Chinook helicopters, which can be used for large water drops, and one-third of its troops are deployed overseas.

It still has ample troops – 10,000 out of a force of 15,000 – and plenty of other Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters to assist firefighters if called upon, said Lt. Colonel Douglas Hart, director of public affairs for the California National Guard.

The Nevada National Guard said it, too, is missing a Chinook helicopter because of the Iraq war, but to compensate for the loss it has outfitted its Black Hawk helicopters so they can drop water on wildfires if needed. And only about 125 of the 2,000 troops in the Nevada National Guard are deployed overseas at one time, said Erick Studenicka, public affairs officer for the Nevada National Guard.

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Guard units in some Northwest states have been returning home in recent months, but the concern now is whether they’ll be released from federal service and ready to help fight fires in the region.

“The Pacific Northwest, including northern Idaho and western Montana, has pretty serious water and fuel issues, so the folks in those states are being wise to look at preplanning,” said Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Wildland fires burned more than 155,000 acres last year across Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. A preliminary outlook this year shows above-normal fire potential in the Northwest.

The fire potential in California, Colorado and the Southwest will be moderated by the heavy rains and snow that fell in those areas this winter. But that moisture will increase the potential for heavier concentrations of fine fuels, like grasses, in Nevada, Utah and California deserts, according to National Interagency Fire Center projections.

“Here in California and Western Nevada we have quite formidable wildland fire protection resources,” Norman said. “Although they might not see much fire activity locally, they would become reachable national resources to assist in other parts of the country.”

Governors in several states in the Pacific Northwest, fearing a bad fire season, are already rallying the troops.

“It really is a matter of being prepared,” said Holly Armstrong, a spokeswoman for Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who requested an assessment of National Guard resources available during the 2005 fire season.

The bulk of Oregon’s 8,000-plus soldiers have returned from overseas deployments. Its five Chinook helicopters have been deployed to Afghanistan, but 12 Black Hawk helicopters could be readily available, said Capt. Mike Braibish, spokesman for the Oregon National Guard.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire in early March declared a drought emergency and ordered the National Guard to prepare for wildfire duty this summer. At her request, the Legislature passed a measure allowing the governor to activate the Guard so soldiers can be trained prior to deployment for emergencies such as wildfires.

Most of Washington’s 8,200 National Guardsmen will be available for state duty. However, the 81st Armor Brigade – with about 3,200 soldiers normally called to respond to state emergencies – has been trickling back from Iraq in recent months, and the state’s adjutant general has asked that it be the last deployed to fight fires.

“Our last resort would be to call upon the services of someone who recently returned from Iraq,” said Master Sgt. Jeff Clayton, a National Guard spokesman at Camp Murray.

The Guard for several weeks has been planning various stages of activation, from supplying limited transportation and logistics support to deploying soldiers on fight fires. It’s something they’ve done since the 1994 record fire season when 1,500 Guardsmen had to work on the fire lines, said Clayton.

“We’re hoping for a mild fire season,” he said. “We’re planning for it to be a robust fire season.”

– Tribune staff writer Gregory Crofton and the Associated Press contributed to this report.