Even as the conflagrations that ravaged Southern California were burning out, fire officials predicted that the West could face an unusually severe fire season this summer, pushing firefighters to their limits and stretching equipment perilously thin.
Jack Wilson, director of the Boise Interagency Fire Center, said Saturday that conditions are "extremely dangerous" in drought-stricken California. He added that hot weather is setting the stage for extensive fires in the intermountain states by drying out an unusually heavy growth of wild grasses stemming from a wet May.
"I would look for some pretty large fires to start in western Utah, Nevada and southern Idaho in the next 10 days," he said, adding that Yellowstone National Park, where 700,000 acres burned in 1988, will enter a danger period in "two to three weeks."
The center, which coordinates firefighting throughout the country, reported 163 fires in the West on Saturday, including seven major blazes, most of which were nearly contained. On Friday, when firefighting strength was at its peak, Wilson said that 10,553 firefighters were on the job in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.
The largest fire, a 25,000-acre blaze in Arizona's Tonto National Forest that killed six firefighters last week, was encircled early Saturday but not expected to be under control for several days.
In other fires outside California, a 3,500-acre fire was burning in Colorado's Uncompahgre National Forest, while a blaze on Sheep Mountain east of Red Feather Lakes in the Roosevelt National Forest was 95% contained. In Texas, flames pushed firefighters back from the front lines of a fire that spread across 4,020 acres of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, about 50 miles east of El Paso in far western Texas.
In Montana, Yellowstone National Park recorded its first forest fires of the summer, but a spokeswoman said they were small and under control. Wilson said, "Yellowstone is still too green."
In New Mexico, lightning and fireworks triggered several fires in the Santa Fe and Cibola national forests, and a fire that had been contained continued to burn in the upper reaches of Las Huertas canyon about a mile from homes east of Albuquerque. In Utah, firefighters controlled brush fires throughout the state as temperatures and winds dropped.
To prepare for the season, Wilson said: "We have done most of the things we could do. We have put on additional helicopters, additional crews, additional air tankers." Some of the tankers have been transported from Canada, he said.
Firefighting crews from as far away as Florida, Oklahoma, and Arkansas already have worked on Western fires this season.
Wilson said deploying crews and equipment quickly will be the key to staying ahead of fires.
"Hopefully, we will not get hit in too many places at once, so we can move around and catch them. It will be critical this year to get them small," he said.
Wilson and other fire officials expect the grueling season to leave firefighters physically and emotionally drained.
That was true at the base camp near Payson, Ariz., near the fire in the Tonto Natonal Forest. Spokesman Wendell Peacock, who had worked five fires in five weeks, reported Saturday that "the firefighters are exhausted.
"And at the same time, they are elated. For one, they are making a turnaround on this thing, and for another, the Payson community has been so unbelievably supportive of our efforts," he said.
On Payson homes, hand-lettered signs read: "Thank you, firefighters," and "God Bless Fire Fighters." One man drove to the base camp 12 miles out of town with a truck loaded with watermelons. On Friday, the women of Payson delivered 150 pies they had baked.
But at Perryville State Prison, the mood was depressed Saturday. Five inmates and one prison employee had lost their lives Tuesday fighting the Tonto National Forest fire when sudden gusts of wind blew the fire over them. Funerals were being held Saturday, today and Monday.
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