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As Tough Firefighting Season Ends, Another Looms

October 13, 2002|Dan Gallagher | Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho -- The multicolored drought map on the National Interagency Fire Center's Internet site depicts an angry burn across the face of the West.

The shades run from yellow, indicating moderate drought in the Midwest and Northern California, to the dark browns and reds of extreme drought in the Rockies and Southwest. There is a similar, smaller burn on the central Eastern Seaboard.

Several years of parched weather set the stage for a firestorm that took six months to end in the northern mountains. And long-range weather forecasts warn of a warm, dry winter in much of the West, suggesting another bad season in 2003.

"In terms of major, large wildfires, it's probably over except in Southern California," said Rick Ochoa, National Weather Service meteorologist at the center, which oversees national fire suppression.

The dry Santa Ana winds that rush from the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah and help incinerate the canyons and valleys of Southern California typically blow until February. But even with drought, cooler temperatures and early signs of winter, rain and snow have lowered the immediate risk from the Northwest into the Rocky Mountains.

This year's fires blackened 6.6 million acres, less than the 8.4 million acres in 2000 but still about twice the 10-year average. Fire Center spokesman Don Smurthwaite said 18,000 firefighters were on the lines throughout the season.

The 2002 fires in the West were notable for burning in the "red zone," the new buzzword for the urban-wild land interface of homes built into the forest.

The largest, Oregon's Biscuit Fire, burned nearly 500,000 acres and put 17,000 people on evacuation alert. Colorado fires scorched about 500,000 acres, destroying 1,000 structures and forcing 81,000 people from their homes. The 469,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski fire in Arizona destroyed at least 467 homes.

Smurthwaite said about 2,600 homes and other buildings have burned this year.

"You take more risks when someone's life is on the line," said Grant Beebe, whose smoke-jumping teams fought fires in the red zone around Canon City and Pueblo, Colo. "With property, you try not to take an extraordinary risk, but it happens."

The fires of 2002 also raised issues of safety and prevention.

Three people died in the June crash of a C-130A retardant tanker on a fire at Walker, Calif., and two were killed when a World War II-era PB4Y-2 broke apart in Colorado in July.

Forest Service officials say a new blue-ribbon panel, led by Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, is conducting the most thorough review ever of the agency's aerial firefighting program to date. The average age of the fleet is approaching 50 years.

Many foresters say one reason the season was so severe was because decades of firefighting allowed a buildup of brush and other fuels in the forest that, centuries ago, would have burned off in smaller, lightning-sparked fires before it could accumulate.

The Bush administration is pushing its "Healthy Forests" initiative, allowing private companies to cut some large trees in exchange for thinning smaller trees and brush.

Environmentalists call it a blanket exemption from public appeals against logging on 10 million acres of high-risk forest. Bills addressing the problem are pending in Congress, but are mired in the debate.

Government officials say a century of fire suppression helped create that fuel build-up, but allowing small blazes to roar across millions of acres in mid-August is not the solution either.

Ochoa said the nation will experience the effects of a revived El Nino, the temperature engine in the tropical Pacific Ocean that affects weather across the globe.

The fall outlook is for continued dry weather for the Pacific Northwest. The desert Southwest and Southern California will be warmer than normal.

The winter outlook includes below-normal rain and snow from the Northwest to the western Dakotas. Temperatures will be above normal in the northern tier and southeastern Alaska.

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