Bad Wildfire Season Feared in West

It was a dry, warm winter across the Northwest, with experts in some areas saying they can't remember the last time the snowpack was this low. It was just the opposite in the Southwest, with record winter rainfall that flooded deserts and caused murderous landslides.

Strangely, both face the same worry: Conditions are ripe for a bad wildfire season. Along with the dry forests in the Northwest, all that rain in the Southwest has fed lots of tall grass and brush that will become tinder when it dries this summer.

Ordinarily, when April arrives, Jack Owen considers himself lucky if any homeowners call his firm to remove brush from around their houses. But in this dry year in Oregon, his Wildfire Fuels Reduction is grinding up trees and bushes as fast as it can.

By this time last year, Owen's company in Bend had only done $1,200 in business. This year, edgy homeowners already have given the company $18,000 worth of work.

''At this time last year, one reason I didn't have much business was too much snow on the ground,'' he said.

Despite the rising threat, money for firefighting is expected to be tight.

''It's a concern, but we've implemented a significant number of cost management measures with our incident management teams and folks out there on the fire line looking at what we can do to cut our costs,'' said Alice Forbes, assistant director of operations for the Forest Service at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano has already authorized more than $1.2 million for firefighters and equipment.

Some governors fear fewer National Guard troops will be available to fight fires because of the war in Iraq, though Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the fire center, said plenty of other firefighters will be available.

''People are very nervous,'' said Heath Hockenberry, predictive services meteorologist at the Boise fire center.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer has asked the Pentagon to return some of the state's troops and helicopters.

Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told Schweitzer in a March 17 letter that he could not do that, but he said half or more of each state's National Guard force will be available to help in disasters. Blum also said the Pentagon would help Montana acquire troops from other states if they are needed.

In parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, the snowpack is only about 25 percent to 50 percent of normal. The U.S. Drought Monitor, which tracks conditions across the country, rates vast tracts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho as ''exceptional drought,'' the worst of five drought categories.

''In a lot of places, there's no comparison,'' Tom Perkins, a hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said of the snowpack. ''It's never been this low before.''

The fire season in the Northwest could start as soon as late May.

''The wild card and the key element in our Northwest fire season is lightning,'' said Mike Fitzpatrick, predictive services coordinator for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. ''We'll have to wait and see what spring brings.''

That's also the threat for the lush crop of grass and brush in the Southwest.

''Any spark, any dry lightning outbreak, there's going to be grass fires,'' Hockenberry said.

Southern California had its second-wettest rainy season on record, and rainfall in Arizona was well above normal. The snowpack in California's southern Sierra Nevada was 53 percent above average, and the Arizona Snowbowl ski area on northern Arizona's highest mountain reported a seasonal total of 37 feet of snow.

In Oregon, Owen doesn't pay a lot of attention to predictions, but he knows his customers aren't taking any chances this year.

''What I notice most is the phone ringing,'' he said.

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