Western states brace for another fiery summer

Posted: Apr 5, 2013

Written by

April Reese, Greenwire
Sun and mountains

A tenacious drought has left millions of acres in the West and elsewhere prone to intense wildfires again this year.

And the Forest Service, hamstrung by budget cuts, will have less resources for fire management this time around.

Arizona, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and Southern California -- all of which saw a drier-than-normal winter -- are especially vulnerable, according to a new federal analysis of wildfire potential from April through July.

Florida, which has already seen some fires this year, including a blaze last month that forced the evacuation of 2,500 people in St. Lucie County, is most likely to see more sparks this month, then the risk shifts west in May as wildfire potential rises in Minnesota, Iowa, New Mexico and Arizona. By June, Southern and Northern California, along with the Northwest, will be most susceptible to major conflagrations, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, which tracks wildfire risk across the United States.

Not surprisingly, the report says the nation's wildfire hot spots roughly align with drought projections. According to the most recent drought outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for March 21 through June 30, drought will persist or intensify over much of the interior West, and dry conditions are likely to develop along the California coast and northern Oregon.

But there's some good news: Some drought relief is on the horizon for central Wyoming, southern Montana and the northern Great Plains.

Despite a few wildfires, the year so far has been relatively calm. Fewer fires burned during the first quarter of 2013 than during the same period last year. There were 6,918 fires that burned 73,771 acres so far this year, while 10,351 fires scorched 182,417 acres by this time in 2012, the fire center reports.

But that relative calm won't last, the center warns.

"A good portion of the West continues to experience drought conditions," said Mike Ferris, a spokesman for the fire center and a former wildland firefighter. "I think time will tell. That could change if by chance we get more moisture later in the season."

Some of the most at-risk areas -- such as hot spots in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico -- also saw smoke last year. More than 9 million acres of public and private land burned in 2012.

Small, frequent wildfires are historically common in many forest types and play an important part in those ecosystems. But large, unnaturally hot wildfires have become more common because of dry conditions and forests overstocked with tinder after decades of fire suppression.

Rising temperatures are likely playing a role as well.

Last year was the warmest on record in the contiguous United States, NOAA said.

And the Forest Service estimates that over the past decade, the wildfire season has expanded by 60 to 70 days a year due to warmer temperatures.

"What's normal anymore? I think that's the question," Ferris said, adding that more wildfires are occurring near communities as well.

The wildfire season started early in Colorado with a fire last month near Fort Collins that forced the evacuations of hundreds of people. Twelve wildfires scorched the state last year, including the Waldo Canyon fire -- the most destructive blaze in Colorado history -- which killed two people and destroyed nearly 350 houses near Colorado Springs.

Budget problems

Even as officials brace for more big burns, the Forest Service will have less money to manage them this year.

Sequestration cuts that went into effect in early March leave the agency's wildfire management fund about $134 million short, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told a Senate panel in February.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said last month that because of those cuts, his agency will go into this wildfire season with about 500 firefighters fewer than it typically hires, leaving it with a fire workforce of about 10,000. The agency will also have to make do with 50 to 70 fewer fire engines this year, he said (E&E Daily, March 14).

To make the most of the workforce it does have, the service will place firefighters in the most at-risk areas and move them when conflagrations break out, he said.

The dip in funding also will likely undercut the service's long-term efforts to reduce the risk of large, unnaturally fierce wildfires in the first place through thinning of overcrowded forests, Vilsack has said. About 200,000 fewer acres would be culled due to the sequestration cuts, he said.

And the agency's program to reduce the fire risk in areas where urban areas meet forestlands by working with communities will probably suffer as well, Vilsack told the House Agriculture Committee last month (E&E Daily, March 6).

The agency spent about $1.3 billion fighting wildfires in 2012 -- $400 million more than its budget provided for.

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