Firefighters battle the Ash Creek wildfire near Ashland, Mont. (Larry Mayer / Billings Gazette )
This Independence Day, many firefighters will be spending the holiday battling massive blazes in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, not to mention smaller fires elsewhere.
Conditions are so dry across the West that wildfires are being started by, among other things, overheated cars, people firing guns and heavy-equipment operators. The Times spoke with U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell about how to handle the increased risks.
What's being done this season to reduce fire risks?
Many of our national forests are closed to fireworks. This year, now that we’re facing these especially dry conditions, we’re asking that unless the decision is made on the state level, fireworks are going to be prohibited on public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
This is really focused on the July 4 holiday and whether it will be extended depends on weather conditions.
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What can people do to further reduce the risk of starting a forest fire?
The best thing people can do is to check locally to see what closures are in place and to make sure they are following the restrictions. It’s just so easy to start a fire with the conditions we have — we’re even having fires started from people pulling their car over to the side of the road, just from the heat of the engine. That’s how dry things are in the West.
There have been recent reports of recreational shooters accidentally starting wildfires in Utah. Are you concerned about fires that might be started by gunfire, perhaps celebratory gunfire during the holiday?
We are experiencing some fires being started through target practice, especially from the explosive targets. I would just ask folks to check locally to see if that activity is prohibited or not.
Even if it is OK to do it, I would still strongly encourage people to be aware of the conditions and see if they could be starting a fire. We’re getting fires started just from equipment operating, sparks coming off of bulldozers and backhoes. It’s extreme conditions.
What could target shooters using explosive targets do differently to reduce the risk of accidentally starting a wildfire?
These are targets that when the ammunition -- the bullet -- hits, it actually explodes, creates a flash and puts up smoke so you can see from a distance if you’re accurate. I would encourage people to find a safe place to do this and maybe go to a designated target range. A paper target would definitely be better.
Are fire officials doing anything differently due to the massive “super fires” we've seen this month in Colorado?
In many of these Western states -- for instance, Colorado and Wyoming -- they've put restrictions on the use of campfires on state lands. That’s why it’s important to check to see what’s permitted not just on public lands but state lands.
There’ve been more closures to fireworks and campfires than what we normally would have this time of year.
Which parts of the country are most at risk for forest fires this holiday?
We can expect a significantly higher fire potential for the next 30 days through the central Western states: Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, the southern half of Montana and the northern half of Arizona and New Mexico into the Midwest states.
What is happening this summer is the weather systems are lining up to keep a drier flow of air through the U.S. than what we were hoping for even 30 days ago. People can look at the map on the National Interagency Coordination Center website to see the fire risks in their area.
What if the area where people live is green and not in a drought? Does that mean they're not at risk from forest fires?
The grass may look green, but even in parts of the East we’re seeing fires now in parts of Virginia. People think it’s greener than it is. The fuels, the grass, the brush is a lot drier than folks would normally expect.
We have close to 12,000 people out fighting fires across the country. If there’s anything we can do to prevent another accidental fire start, it would help us get ahead of the rest of these fires and help everybody have a better Fourth of July.
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