New growth belies continuing drought effects

Flourishing spring grass fuels concerns in West over summer wildfires

May 22, 2003|By Tom Gorman | Tom Gorman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah - Park ranger David Eaker walks through a field thick with grass as tall as his waist and deceptive in its greenery.

Don't think for a minute, he says, that the drought is over and the risk of fire has decreased in the West.

Spring rains here and elsewhere have nourished fresh growth, belying the continuing, deep effects of the drought. For the past three years, Zion has been too dry even for grass, and now long-dormant grass seeds have sprouted across meadows and mesas.

"But this will all be brown by late June or early July," Eaker said, "and when it dries out, it will be nothing but fine fuel."

If the grass ignites, whether from a tourist's cigarette in Zion Canyon or by lightning strikes in the upper reaches of the vermilion-streaked sandstone mountains, the brittle ponderosa and pinyon pines will burst into flames.

Last summer, fires burned 7.1 million acres and 815 homes and other structures, mostly in the West. Zion escaped with eight small fires, scorching 18 acres.

With parched forests and weather conditions that are expected to remain dry and hot, fire officials are braced for another dangerous season of wildfires. Eaker's park is almost dead center in the region where the drought will persist, according to projections issued May 15 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center.

The forecast through August shows that the drought, which began in 1999, may worsen from southern Idaho and southwestern Wyoming to the Mexican border.

Not enough rain

Ed O'Lenic, senior meteorologist at the Climate Prediction Center, said heavier-than-normal rainfall is expected in late July and August across southern Nevada, Arizona, southern Utah, western Colorado and much of New Mexico. Still, he said, there won't be enough rain to erase the ravages caused by three years of sustained drought.

While the coastline areas from San Diego to Seattle are drought-free, conditions change rapidly within miles and remain bleak across entire states.

"Even if we get above-normal rainfall, we may still see extreme fire behavior," said Tom Wordell, wildland fire analyst for the U.S. Forest Service. Computer modeling, he said, predicts that fire will spread at twice the normal rate among the weakened trees.

Fiercely burning fires are only one outgrowth of the drought. Farmers have less water for crops, and with hay and alfalfa production retarded, cattlemen are supplementing feed for their breeding stock with federal-surplus powdered milk. Environmentalists from Northern California's Klamath Basin to New Mexico's Rio Grande want water released from reservoirs to sustain endangered fish, at the expense of farmers and residents complaining of water restrictions.

In Colorado, a late-winter snowstorm has allowed Boulder to lift water restrictions, but in nearby Aurora, which relies on a different watershed, there is a continuing prohibition against the planting of sod, restrictions on new developments and limits to landscape watering.

"We didn't get in the drought in a year, and we won't get out of it in a year," said Jack Byers, deputy engineer for the state's Division of Water Resources.

Push for legislation

Last year, the Western Governors' Association pushed unsuccessfully for Congress to assign a federal agency to oversee drought planning and response. New legislation will be reintroduced in coming weeks, said Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns.

Politics aside, Eaker is wrestling with realities. Crews at Zion, in southwestern Utah, are thinning trees near park-employee residences, and firefighters remain alert to thunderheads that may unleash lightning.

"Last year at this time the flow of water through our fork of the Virgin River was 5 percent of normal," the park ranger said. "It's now flowing at 40 percent of normal, but soil moisture is still low, and now we have more grass fuel than we've seen in years. Our anxiety about fire is as high as ever."

Tom Gorman writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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