Extreme drought in Southwest causes unusual rise in wildfires, officials say 2.3 million acres burned nationwide, three times the normal amount


BROOMFIELD, COLO. — /TC BROOMFIELD, Colo. -- Fueled by drought and "kindling" forests, wildfires have burned 2.3 million acres nationwide this year -- three times the normal amount, federal agriculture officials say.

"We are experiencing a very bad fire season," Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said during a visit Friday to a federal center that coordinated efforts last month to fight an enormous blaze 35 miles south of here, one of Colorado's worst fires in a century.

Destroying nine houses and 11,900 acres of forest in the Buffalo Creek section of Pike National Forest, the fire started from an illegal campfire and cost $2.6 million to fight.

With extreme drought gripping much of the Southwest, local and state officials are trying to restrict the private use of fireworks. Calls to fire departments normally surge during the Fourth of July holiday.

Forest fires have grown increasingly dangerous because of two recent phenomena: a buildup of fallen branches because small fires have been artificially repressed in recent years and an equally explosive buildup of suburban communities in forested areas.

Starting 10 miles west of here, Denver's Rocky Mountain suburbs are home to a "spider web city" of about 100,000 people. At the same time, the potential for wildfires has increased because most areas have not had a fire in more than 50 years.

Historically, an acre of Western ponderosa forest burned about once every five to seven years, said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who joined the news conference.

Today, the average acre of U.S. government land can be expected to burn about every 250 years, Interior Department studies have shown.

Wielding a pair of pruning shears, Babbitt recommended that Western homeowners start "casting a critical eye on their homes before they see flames in the sky."

To prepare for wildfires, homeowners should cut down all trees within 10 feet of their houses. To prevent ground fires from reaching the crowns of surrounding trees, owners should create a 30-foot-wide safety zone by cutting all branches up to the height of 6 feet and by raking away leaves, brush and dead grass.

Glickman spoke in front of a photograph of the charred remains of a house destroyed in last month's Buffalo Creek fire.

Already this year, wildfires have destroyed 400 homes in Alaska, California, Colorado and New Mexico.

Last week, one fire forced thousands to flee upscale homes in the Sierra Nevada, 20 miles east of Lake Tahoe, Nev.

In Arizona, 10 Grand Canyon hikers were airlifted to safety after a lightning-sparked fire.

With the traditional forest-fire season due to start in August, federal officials say they cannot play fire department for the entire Southwest.

"When you get away from it all, you really get away from it all -- including your local access to fire protection," Glickman said.

Severe drought grips Arizona and New Mexico and southern portions of California, Colorado, Nevada, Texas and Utah. So far this year, there have been 68,000 wildfires nationwide, while there is an average of 40,000 for the first half of a typical year. In Colorado alone, 900 fires have consumed 54,000 acres of forest.

Federal agencies have about 11,200 firefighters and a budget of about $300 million at their disposal.

"Right now, 9,000 firefighters are fighting 13 major fires in six states," Glickman said in an empty hangar of the federal fire office here, officially called the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center.

With much of the Southwest tinder-dry, campfires have been banned in most state and national forests.

In Arizona, where Babbitt helped fight a forest fire for three days last week, several towns have banned cigarette smoking outdoors.

Pub Date: 6/30/96

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