States brace for wildfire season

Associated Press
When huge flames roared outside his windows, Jack Hunt stayed put. He figured if the largest wildfire in the country last season reached his home, he might as well go up with it.

Hunt was lucky; the flames of the giant Biscuit fire burned nearly 500,000 acres, but stopped short of his house near Agness, Ore. This year he isnít taking any chances, even if his home in the southwest corner of the state isnít identified as being at high risk for catastrophic fires. Last year, he boarded up his windows, put tin around the sides of his home and pruned his trees as the fire burned toward him. As the West enters another wildfire season, Hunt is doing even more tree trimming and grass cutting.

"What they say and what happens are two different things," said Hunt, 62.

Even with much of the West still gripped by drought, experts say this fire season shouldnít be as bad as last year, when fires had already begun in the Southwest by April.

Wildfires last year burned 6.9 million acres, most of it in the West. This yearís season isnít as early ó firefighters are just beginning to see fires ó but the fire risk is still above normal.

"Weíre seeing a little bit better conditions. But again, with five years of drought, certainly weíre not out of the woods yet," said Larry Van Bussum, National Weather Service meteorologist to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. "Youíve still got some pretty major dry conditions across the West."

More than 15,000 federal firefighters are available ó 178 more than last year ó along with 16 elite fire management teams, the same as last year.

The war in Iraq isnít likely to affect the availability of troops for possible emergency fire duty, said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dan Stoneking. NIFC spokeswoman Janelle Smith also noted that firefighters from Australia and New Zealand have helped in bad fire seasons before, and would be available again.

Funding is down from last year, and federal agencies are looking for ways to cut costs for large, catastrophic fires.

The Forest Service has set aside $420 million to fight fires ó nearly $1 billion less than officials spent last year. The Forest Service still faces a more than $300 million deficit because it borrowed money from other accounts last year.

The Interior Department had to borrow $250 million from other programs last year after depleting the $161 million allotted to fight fires. This year, $159 million is for suppression, but itís too early to tell whether that will be enough, said Andy Smith, chief of the budget and evaluation staff for the Bureau of Land Management at NIFC.