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Wildfire season looms -- and federal officials say they're ready

April 27, 2012|By Michael Muskal
  • U.S. Forest Service Southwest Regional Forester Corbin Newman, left, listens as Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell talks about the national fire outlook during a news conference at the Sandia Ranger Station in Tijeras, N.M., on Thursday. Federal officials expect the 2012 season to be just as active as that of last year, when historic fires charred hundreds of square miles across parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
U.S. Forest Service Southwest Regional Forester Corbin Newman, left,… (Susan Montoya Bryan/AP…)

Some parts of the United States, particularly in the West, could face an active wildfire season this year, federal officials warn, adding that they're prepared to deal with the challenge.

In a telephone conference call this week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said their agencies are braced for the expected wildfires. The season is likely to be as active as that of the past year, they say, when the Southwest was especially hard hit. Joining the Cabinet secretaries on the call were FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and National Predictive Services program manager of the National Interagency Fire Center Ed Delgado.

“We are ready to meet the challenge,” Vilsack said. “Our concern does not stop at the border of federal lands but, rather, a strategy that is an all-lands approach for safety and wildfire management.”

More than 15,000 firefighters will be available this year, officials said, including permanent and seasonal federal and state employees, crews from tribal and local governments, contract crews, and temporary hires.

Areas with ongoing drought conditions, such as much of the Southwest, are especially threatened, according to the Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. “Severe to extreme drought conditions continue for much of eastern New Mexico, western Texas, parts of the upper Midwest and much of the Southeast coast,” the center warned. “Worsening drought was occurring over much of the Southwest, including California and the Great Basin.”

Fuel dryness is also a concern, the center noted: “Heavy loadings of fine fuels across the central U.S. coupled with pre-greenup conditions are causing control problems and leading to some increased fire behavior when coupled with wind events.”

Overall, potential problem areas include the western slopes of the Rockies in Colorado; parts of the Southeast, including southern Georgia and northern Florida; northern Wisconsin and Minnesota; and parts of Hawaii, according to the agency’s maps.
 
On average, the USDA Forest Service and the Department of the Interior respond to more than 20,000 wildfires a year, officials said. Together, the agencies’ wildfire prevention and suppression efforts employ 15,000 firefighters. The agencies have a combined budget of more than $2.8 billion for fighting fires, officials said.

“Federal firefighters, aircraft, and ground equipment are strategically assigned to parts of the country as the fire season shifts across the nation. Firefighting experts will continuously monitor conditions and move these assets as necessary to be best positioned and increase initial attack capabilities,” said Forest Chief Tidwell. “In addition, we are in the midst of conducting accelerated restoration activities nationwide that will result in healthier forests and will lessen fire risks in years to come.”

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Michael.muskal@latimes.com

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