Drought puts the Southwest, East at high risk for wildfire

By Chuck Oxley The Associated Press
Thursday April 04, 2002

BOISE, Idaho — Wide swaths of the Southwest and a patchwork of forests along the East Coast are at the highest risk for wildfire this summer, National Interagency Fire Center officials said Wednesday. 

In the Southwest, drought and the amount of moisture in plants has reached a critically low level, said Rick Ochoa, the national fire weather program coordinator. 

Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado have already had some spring wildfires. Ochoa said some trees and shrubs were burned to white ash — an indication of fire intensity due to bone dry conditions. 

“The southwest might be the epicenter of the fire season this year,” Ochoa said. 

The western drought extends from Southern California northeast to southwestern Montana. Plant moisture content in Southern California’s Inyo National Forest is at historic lows and reflects conditions normally associated with mid-autumn, Ochoa said. Rainfall in the southern Rocky Mountains is as little as 30 percent of normal. 

In Flagstaff, Ariz., about an hour’s drive south of the Grand Canyon, U.S. Forest Service officials have already hired one hotshot firefighting crew and plan to hire more as quickly as the federal government can finance the positions, said Raquel Poturalski, spokeswoman for Coconino National Forest. 

“Our fuel moistures are similar to what they were in 1996, and that was our worst fire season ever. We’re looking at a really similar season this year,” she said. 

On the East Coast, forest officials are concerned about several years of scant rainfall. A drought has left parched forests from Georgia to northern Maine and into Canada. 

“Spring is our busy time of the year,” said Jim Downie, spokesman for the Maine Forest Service. “The ground is extremely dry. We have had five fires in January burn down under the snow and then resurface.” 

In eastern hardwood forests, leaf litter builds up to a thickness of several feet on the forest floor. When the material dries, it become extremely flammable, Downie said. 

Although New England has had some additional moisture in recent weeks, officials are getting ready for a tougher season. 

The U.S. Forest Service has positioned an additional large fire bomber in Vermont, Downie said. And officials are dusting off a cooperative agreement that will allow aircraft to be called in from Canadian provinces to fight forest fires. 

“We’re going to see the true effect of the drought over the last couple of years,” Downie said. 

It is a completely different story in the Northwest, where fires last year in Oregon and Washington burned thousands of acres. This year, except for southeastern Oregon, the Northwest has an abundance of rain. Western Washington is especially wet. 

Last year, 89,079 fires burned 3.57 million acres across the nation. That is far less than the historic season of 2000, when 123,000 fires destroyed 8.4 million acres of range and forest and cost taxpayers $1.3 billion to fight. 

This year, the federal government has set aside $2.29 million to fight wildfires. 


On the Net: 

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov