Dry winter means early fire season
Firefighters are already battling forest fires in the flint-dry South and Midwest.
LOS ALAMOS, N.M.
Taking a break at the Los Alamos Fire Department headquarters, Jay Balfour has the tired, sunburned, and sooty face of someone who's put in a good week of firefighting. And he's ready to go out again.Skip to next paragraph
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"Firefighters are a little different," says the tall, lean firefighter from Farmington, N.M., leaning forward in his chair at the firehouse. "They kind of challenge each other. When you see someone who's tired but they still keep at it, you've got to do the same thing. You keep each other going."
Mr. Balfour and fellow firefighters across the US may be relying on one another a lot this summer. Unusually dry weather conditions, from Arizona to Utah to Texas, and from the upper Midwest to the southernmost tip of Florida, have turned much of the nation into a tinderbox. Already, close to 1 million acres have burned - the most since the mid-1990s.
It's a situation that raises numerous questions about US forest policy and whether the country has enough manpower to protect woodland areas in what may be one of the earliest fire seasons in decades.
"This is the driest winter in history, and that's from Waco, Texas, and Los Alamos to the Grand Canyon," says Jim Paxon, chief spokesman for the US Forest Service at Los Alamos. "When you start this early in the spring, our [year-round] folks get fatigued. But you know, us old fire dogs get used to it and we live through these times."
Across the US, there are several regions that officials are labeling as high-risk areas for wildfires. In addition to the out-of-control "prescribed" burn around Los Alamos that has scorched 44,000 acres, three more fires have New Mexico firefighters scrambling across the state. Firefighters in Arizona are battling blazes in the Tonto National Forest and along the northern rim of the Grand Canyon, and a lightning strike in Florida has set off grass fires that threaten to spread to urban areas.
But dry conditions are extending well beyond the Southern tier of the US. A "worsening drought" has left Illinois and much of the Midwest parched, and Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan are on high fire alert. In Minnesota alone, more than 2,000 fires have consumed 50,000 wildland acres this year. Overall, nearly one-quarter of the mainland US is experiencing moderate to severe drought, with the peak months for drought still ahead.
For the nation's elite firefighters, this has meant the beginning of a long, hot summer. At the top are the 68 elite crews of "hotshot" firefighters. Only 14 crews of these special teams, which are trained to handle the toughest of wildfire conditions, are currently activated; the rest may be called up earlier than usual this summer, Mr. Paxon says. But by the time the thousands of smokejumpers add to the nation's firefighting capacity, there may already be several severe forest fires under way.
While dry conditions account for much of the nation's fire dangers, some forestry experts say the problem is exacerbated by forest policies that have built up unusually high levels of fuel on the ground.