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Fire Threat Is Red-Hot in Parched West

Spring rains bring new growth, but by summer it will be fresh fuel in the drought-plagued region.

May 20, 2003|Tom Gorman | Times Staff Writer

ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah — Park ranger David Eaker walks through a field thick with grass as tall as his waist and deceptive in its greenery.

Don't think for a minute, he says, that the drought is over and the risk of fire has decreased in the West.

Spring rains here and elsewhere have nourished fresh growth, belying the continuing, deep effects of the drought. For the last three years, Zion has been too dry even for grass, and now long-dormant grass seeds have sprouted across meadows and mesas.

"But this will all be brown by late June or early July," Eaker said, "and when it dries out, it will be nothing but fine fuel."

If the grass ignites, whether from a tourist's cigarette in Zion Canyon or by lightning strikes in the upper reaches of the vermilion-streaked sandstone mountains, the brittle ponderosa and pinyon pines and junipers will burst into flames.

Last summer, fires burned 7.1 million acres and 815 homes and other structures, mostly in the West. Zion escaped with eight small fires, scorching only 18 acres.

With parched forests and weather conditions that are expected to remain dry and hot, fire officials are braced for another dangerous season of wildfires. Eaker's park is almost dead center in the region where the drought will persist, according to projections issued Thursday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center.

The forecast through August shows that the drought, which began in 1999, may worsen from southern Idaho and southwestern Wyoming southward to the Mexican border. Some of the regions last summer experienced the driest months in recorded history, with trees drier than kiln-dried lumber.

Ed O'Lenic, senior meteorologist at the Climate Prediction Center, said heavier-than-normal rainfall is expected in late July and August across southern Nevada, Arizona, southern Utah, western Colorado and much of New Mexico. Still, he said, there won't be enough rain to erase the ravages caused by three years of sustained drought.

While the coastline areas from San Diego to Seattle are drought-free, conditions change rapidly within miles and remain bleak across entire states. In woodlands from the San Bernardino Mountains to the high desert of Santa Fe, N.M., hundreds of thousands of acres of ponderosa and pinyon pine -- the most prevalent trees of the arid West -- are dead or dying, weakened first by a lack of moisture and then by burrowing insects.

"Even if we get above-normal rainfall, we may still see extreme fire behavior," said Tom Wordell, wildland fire analyst for the U.S. Forest Service. Computer modeling, he said, predicts that fire will spread at twice the normal rate among the weakened trees.

A key to firefighting is anticipating where fires will break out and placing personnel and equipment in the region ahead of time, said Kim Christensen, who coordinates firefighting logistics at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

The fire center predicts wildfires by charting which forests are the densest because they have burned the least in recent years, analyzing the moisture content of the most flammable trees and brush, and monitoring weather fronts that may spawn lightning-laced thunderstorms.

A handful of firefighters can be assigned to areas of advancing lightning storms and, in the most vulnerable areas, hundreds of firefighters and air tankers, managed by a military-like command structure, can be positioned for a quick response. About 99% of fires are extinguished by the first firefighters on the scene, officials said.

Last year at this time, when big fires already were burning in New Mexico and Arizona, thousands of firefighters were flown to a staging area in Albuquerque, cutting response time by several days.

On July 31, the busiest day of last year's fire season, 31 large blazes were burning across the nation, 148 new fires erupted and fire bosses had to decide where to dispatch 28,000 wildland firefighters, 1,205 engines, 30 air tankers and 188 helicopters.

Because this year's fire season has started more slowly, air tankers have been sent only to Alaska and Minnesota, where current weather conditions make them more susceptible to wildfires.

In another effort to reduce fires, foresters throughout the country, in line with the 2-year-old National Fire Plan, are thinning woods. Most of last summer's worst fires gorged on forests overgrown with small trees and brush because of a decades-long national policy to extinguish fires as quickly as possible. Had fires been allowed to burn in previous years, experts concede, those forests would have provided less fuel for subsequent fires.

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