SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - After battling through the state's longest
fire season on record, New Mexico could be in store for another
terrible fire season next year if the winter does not bring more
moisture, foresters warn.
"Just in terms of thinking of the number of days we were in
extreme fire danger, this year ranked the worst," said Paul
Orosco, fire-staff officer for the Santa Fe National Forest.
"It started earlier and stayed longer," he said of the about
the fire season that began in early spring and lasted into
September.
This year nearly 400,000 wildland acres burned in New Mexico.
When combined with Arizona, the two states had more than 1 million
acres blackened by fires at a firefighting cost of $150 million.
It was the most burned acreage in history for a single year in
the Southwest, roughly 40,000 more acres for New Mexico than the
unprecedented year of 2000.
"There's no question that the 2002 fire season will be
remembered for its damage and devastation," said Edy
Williams-Rhodes, director of aviation and fire management for the
Forest Service, Southwest Region. "But it could have been much
worse."
Williams-Rhodes said the agency was prepared for a bad fire
season and got a quick jump on almost every flare-up.
"In terms of firefighting effectiveness, 98 percent of all
wildland fire occurrences were successfully contained with initial
attack actions," he said.
More snowpack is needed to get adequate moisture in the forests
to curb fires next summer, Orosco said.
"Right now our assessment is we're not getting good levels of
snowpack, but we're still better off than last year," Orosco said.
The forests are still vulnerable from years of meager
precipitation, he said.
One winter of good snow "still will not fix what five years of
drought have done," Orosco said. "We could still get a crown
fire."
An added fire threat is the dense thickets of small trees in
many of the Southwest's ponderosa forests, which are the result of
an absence of small healthy fires and other factors that have led
to the eruptive outbreak of young and now water-starved trees, he
said.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)