Wildfire Season Has Been Mild So Far

Usually by now, wildfires are burning up the West as harried firefighters scramble from one blaze to the next in a desperate quest to put out the flames.

Not so this year. It's well into fire season and it's been mild.

So where are the fires?

Alaska has had an extreme season, with more than 4.4 million acres burned. But despite early, intense fires in California, just more than 1.1 million acres have been scorched in the Lower 48 states. The 10-year average for all states is 2.78 million acres.

``It's slow. It's sloooow,'' said Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

The experts aren't fooled.

Mild temperatures and rain have helped keep flames at bay this year, but forecasters caution the worst could still lie ahead. Last year, the California wildfires didn't hit until October, and turned out to be the most disastrous in state history. Two dozen people were killed and more than 3,500 homes were destroyed.

While the West has been warm, periodic shots of cooler weather combined with rain and few dry lightning outbreaks have contributed to a slower than normal fire season.

``Right now, we're sort of in the lull period,'' said Paul Werth, fire weather program manager at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland, Ore.

The fire season migrates around the West, with Alaska usually at high risk in May and June, and California in September and October. Alaska fires have been bad because of warm and dry conditions made worse by the extra hours of daylight up north.

Southern California, with vegetation at record dry levels, has had fires earlier than usual. In one week last month, blazes scorched more than 48,000 acres, leaving firefighters wondering what the fall will bring. Fires haven't burned as many acres as they usually do, but the intensity has surprised scientists and firefighters. Humidity and cool air has spared the state from more wildfires, but fire risk is increasing because of a heat wave that moved in last weekend.

``The fuels, the brush, the grass and things like that have never been this dry before,'' said Rick Ochoa, national fire weather program manager for the Bureau of Land Management in Boise, Idaho.

The next few months will tell the tale, as the heat rises, storms slow and Santa Ana winds blow through Southern California.

``That's one of the big fears. Even though we have had a relatively mild season, there's still that potential out there,'' Ochoa said. ``We know if we get that dry lightning, we know if we get those Santa Anas, we're going to have some major problems.''

Firefighters have kept busy clearing brush, helping out in Alaska and battling the smaller fires around the West.

``I'd probably do a lot of things different if I knew right now what the rest of the fire season's going to be,' said Guy Pence, fire and aviation staff officer for the Boise National Forest. ``We're just asking our firefighters to be prepared. We're not through fire season yet.''

Forecasters say temperatures will heat up this week across the West and fuels will continue to bake and dry.

``This could be the last rain we get for a month and a half,'' Werth said. ``Until the middle of September, we really have to be very watchful. It won't take too long for the fuels to dry out.''

Werth and Ochoa agree: it's just too early to call this season a calm one.

``I've seen a lot of seasons that look mild up until the last part of August, and then all of a sudden things go berserk,'' Werth said. ``All it takes is a week or two of hot, dry weather and then get some lightning or wind in.''