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Forest managers kick prevention into early gear ahead of wildfire season

Drought and climate shifts, coupled with overgrown forests, could make this summer's wildfire season a challenging one.

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    Wildland fire engine operator Jeremy Lauck watches as the Rocky Mount fire burns to the south of Elkton, Va., on April 19. Fire crews used the road as a fire line and were standing by to ensure that the wildfire did not cross over the roadway. Forest officials are making preparations for fire season early this year.
    Daniel Lin/Daily News-Record/AP
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Forest officials are beginning their forest fire preparations early this year to try and head off what they fear will be a bad fire season due to drought and chronically overgrown forests.

The US Forest Service's task of putting out the nation's major forest fires has grown exponentially as fires have increased in both size and number. Unable to persuade Congress to increase its budget accordingly, forest officials are instead scheduling their preventative efforts earlier on the calendar.

Alaska had fully staffed both its hotshot and smokejumper teams by mid-March this year, as forest officials try to prepare early following last year's fire season, which devastated the state's forests to an unusual degree. 

"The trend we're seeing is towards an earlier fire season," Tim Mowry, the public information officer for the Alaska Division of Forestry, told the Anchorage NBC-affiliate KTUU last month. "We're trying to bump that training up a little bit and have everyone ready to go by May 1."

In many parts of the United States, officials are preparing for a wildfire season fueled by a perfect storm of bad droughts, climate-inducted dangers such as the pine bark beetle that has devastated Western forests, and almost a century of forest management practices that left too much flammable brush in the forest.

"We have a lot of changes going on on the landscape, especially out here in the Great Basin and out West," Kim Trust, deputy chief of the Wildlife Refuge System for the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Pacific Region, told The Christian Science Monitor last summer. "We have climate change happening and some really big issues with invasive species. The fire seasons are getting worse each year."

Firefighters are taking an increasingly aggressive approach to fire prevention, reported The Christian Science Monitor's Pete Spotts:

Agencies responsible for managing federal land for natural resources, as well as for wildlife habitats, began looking more closely at using fire as a tool for improving habitat as well as reducing the risk of severe wildfires, particularly for ecosystems that have evolved in a regime of periodic, relatively low-level fires....

Indeed, the Interior Department's move is part of a larger federal emphasis on fire-resilient landscapes that emerged after Congress passed the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act of 2009. That led to the development of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, says Chris Topik, who heads the Nature Conservancy's Restoring America's Forests program.

Alaska had its second relatively dry winter, leaving it at risk for fires this summer, the National Interagency Fire Center reported. Unusual rain and snow this winter have left much of the West and South in a better position than usual for fire season.

The truly gigantic forest fires that devastate millions of acres and drain the US Forest Service budget occur in the Western United States, but several early-season fires in the Eastern coastal states serve as a reminder of the problem's national scope. Fires blazed along each side of North Carolina on Wednesday, with one burning 14,000 acres and forcing the closure of a 30-mile stretch of US 264, the Associated Press reported.

As far north as New Jersey, a 100-acre fire required an early firefighting deployment, the Press of Atlantic City reported. 

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