Western drought raises fears of horrific fire season

Unusually warm March has states praying for rain

April 11, 2004|By David Kelly | David Kelly,LOS ANGELES TIMES

DENVER -- An ominous alignment of drought, high temperatures and millions of dead trees has sparked fears across the West that this year's fire season could be among the most devastating the region has ever seen.

Worried public safety officials are pinning their hopes on a very wet April to prevent a repeat of 2002, when enormous blazes ripped through Colorado, Arizona and Utah, destroying hundreds of homes and causing millions of dollars in damage. So far, though, little rain has fallen and much of the snow cover has melted.

And in California, which last year had its biggest fires in modern history, all the elements are in place for another horrific fire season. Last fall's wildfires in Southern California consumed 738,000 acres, destroyed more than 3,600 homes and structures, and took 26 lives.

Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties are listed as severe fire dangers this year largely because of more than 1 million dead, dry trees spread over 400,000 acres. Last year's fires burned only 5 percent of those trees, officials said.

"We have a historically unprecedented infestation of Western bark beetles that have destroyed the trees," said Karen Terrill, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "Last year we saw when the fire got into the [trees killed by insects], it became very aggressive."

While lifeless pines stand like unlit matches in Southern California, thousands of diseased oaks pose similar dangers in 12 counties around San Francisco. Sudden oak death syndrome has killed trees throughout the Bay Area, leaving them and the surrounding grasslands they inhabit ripe for ignition, Terrill said.

In Colorado, firefighters fear another summer of 2002, when the worst fires in its history tore through the state, culminating in the giant Hayman fire that consumed 137,000 acres and destroyed 132 homes and businesses.

Barring a last-minute blizzard or monsoon-like rains, it seems history could be on the verge of repeating itself.

Soaring temperatures, bone-dry conditions and some early wildfires have Colorado firefighters on statewide alert. Traditionally the snowiest month of the year, March was its driest in nearly a century. Meanwhile, the state has launched its most aggressive plan yet to thin forests and reduce fuel for fire -- aiming to eliminate 67,000 acres of vulnerable trees and brush.

Meetings among federal, state and local emergency officials are being held to coordinate emergency efforts. Air tankers are being positioned around the state to go into action wherever a fire develops.

"The Hayman fire changed all the assumptions about what a big fire could do," said Rick Cables, regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service who oversees Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota and Kansas. "Prior to that, our biggest [Colorado] fire was 25,000 acres and before that 12,000 acres."

Already this year, a still-smoldering wildfire near Fort Collins, Colo., burned more than 9,000 acres. On Thursday, a man whose yard fire started the larger blaze was charged with fourth-degree arson.

Fire officials say an unusually warm March has led to rapid snow melt that has left many Western states with only about 60 percent to 70 percent of their usual snow pack. The danger zones include the Four Corners region, along with wide swaths of eastern Washington, northern Idaho, western Montana, eastern Oregon and northern Wyoming.

With the exception of heavy rains in New Mexico, there has been little precipitation throughout the West. In Arizona, temperatures reached 100 degrees in some places last month. The high heat and low humidity have triggered between 60 and 100 wildfires in Arizona.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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