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Dry Southwest in the Line of Fire

Times Staff Writers

A prolonged drought has created ideal wildfire conditions across much of the West and Southwest this summer, alarming forestry officials, who already are dealing with an unusually high number of fires.

Nationwide as of Saturday, officials have reported 54,686 fires charring more than 3.2 million acres this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Both figures are the highest in at least a decade for the same period. The 10-year average for this date is 39,240 fires burning about 1 million acres.

So far, none of the fires has spun out of control, but scientists and forestry officials warned that exceptionally light rains and low humidity in many states have left dry, dead branches and grasses that could ignite like a tinderbox.

“Basically, you have had low precipitation since the late 1990s, and now, a winter in which we got close to no precipitation” in the Southwest, said Chuck Maxwell, a meteorologist with the Department of the Interior who months ago predicted a severe fire season. “The fuel moisture levels are very low. The humidity is very low. There are lots of places now that are as dry as we have ever seen them.”

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One such place is the scenic red-rock country around the resort town of Sedona, about 90 miles north of Phoenix. Firefighters spent most of last week battling a blaze that threatened to spill down the candy-colored walls of Oak Creek Canyon, a bucolic area just north of town. About 30 businesses and 430 residences -- from modest trailers to resorts and million-dollar estates -- were evacuated last Sunday.

The fire, which had burned more than 4,000 acres, was 20% contained as of Saturday. The area sweltered in 100-degree heat all week, which made it tougher to stop the fire. Flames crept down the west wall of the canyon, bristling with dried-out willows, cottonwood and pine. Firefighters ignited backfires along the road that winds through the canyon bottom to keep the fire from jumping across Oak Creek and spreading toward Sedona.

Some of the firefighters here were already weary from fighting fire after fire. Nat Mayhall of Chino Valley, Ariz., said he had been skeptical of predictions that 2006 would be an abnormal fire year. But after four straight weeks of battling wildfires, he had changed his mind.

“It’s going to be bad,” said Mayhall, 37.

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Wildfire season typically peaks in late summer and early fall, and some fire experts cautioned against drawing dire conclusions from a rash of fires during the first half of the year. A series of fast-moving grass fires that roared through Oklahoma and north Texas this spring accounted for nearly a third of the acres charred so far, they noted.

“We are just as dry, if not drier, than we were in 2002, when we had huge wildfires in the West, so that should certainly serve as a warning,” said Dan Binkley, director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University. “But a lot depends on what happens during the rest of the season. If you get some rain in the right places, it could merely be a bad fire year, instead of a historic one.”

Still, it is indisputable that firefighters have been busier than normal so far in 2006 -- and the wildfire activity reached a high point last week. By Saturday, there were 23 large fires burning more than 275,000 acres in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.

In response, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens banned fireworks on state-owned land, and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano declared a state of emergency and activated the 211 telephone system to spread information on fire conditions.

In Alaska, a fire near Nenana, an Athabascan native village about 50 miles from Fairbanks, had burned more than 80,000 acres of black spruce, grass and tundra, and it was threatening homes and cabins.

In California, a fire about 45 miles east of Santa Maria in Santa Barbara County, sparked by a piece of metal siding that blew off and sheared a power line, had charred more than 13,000 acres of oak trees and chaparral and was rapidly moving toward the San Rafael Wilderness.

In Colorado, a fire near Fort Garland, about 110 miles south of Colorado Springs, burned more than 11,000 acres and led to the evacuation of 280 homes.

In New Mexico, there were several serious fires, including one that had burned more than 32,000 acres near Glenwood, and another near Ocate that was moving toward the Philmont Scout Ranch, a high-adventure campsite operated by the Boy Scouts of America in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

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But it was the fire threatening the outskirts of Sedona that firefighters declared the top national priority because of its proximity to people, resorts and pricey real estate. Earlier in the week, Napolitano underlined the urgency of corralling the fire, calling Sedona the “jewel of Arizona.”

The fire forced the closure of Coconino National Forest between Sedona and Flagstaff, a popular summer camping destination. More than 4 million people pass through the forest every year, many on the way to the Grand Canyon.

In fitting fashion for Sedona, a Mecca for New Age types who believe that some of its most picturesque rock formations are “vortexes” that release psychic energy, expressions of gratitude to firefighters shaded into the spiritual. Along with free food, drinks and socks, businesses offered free crystals. At a community meeting Friday, a silver-haired woman asked the incident commander how she could go about rewarding firefighters with free massages and acupuncture.

There were early signs that the 2006 fire season could be a bad one. A fire in February, a month typically marked by some winter rains, burned more than 4,000 acres in the bone-dry Tonto National Forest in central Arizona. It was believed to be the earliest large fire ever in the region’s national forests.

Although some parts of the West, including the Sierra Nevada in California and the western slope of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, received ample snowfall this winter, drought conditions prevail in much of the Southwest, the Central Plains and eastern parts of the Rocky Mountains.

That lack of precipitation created the conditions that are causing so many large fires. Meteorologists believe the West is in the grips of a severe drought cycle -- the kind the region experiences only once every half a century. Some experts think climate change also may be reducing Western precipitation.

But lack of rainfall is not the only culprit, wildfire experts said. Prolonged low humidity can help feed fires by drying out larger branches and trees that would otherwise maintain some of their moisture even if not dampened by rain. Arizona and other Western states have experienced exceptionally low humidity in recent weeks.

With the number of Western fires on the rise, politicians in Washington have begun to take notice.

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Last week in the Senate, lawmakers in an Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee meeting asked how the government would pay for the cost of battling wildfires. Their questions arose after they received a report from the Government Accountability Office of Congress showing that federal, state and local agencies still had no consistent policy for sharing fire expenses.

Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) said that with much of his state in extreme drought, the state’s expense from fighting fires could be significant, requiring federal assistance.

“This year, we’re going to see fires that surpass anything we’ve seen in the past,” Salazar said. “I’m very worried about my state.”

Bustillo reported from Houston, Riccardi from Sedona.


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