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.
"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.
Historically, Western forests experienced modest fires every six to 10 years, a process that cleared forest floors of deadwood and pine needles. Some fires were the result of lightning strikes; others were set by native American tribes, often as a way to hunt animals. But after a century of aggressive fire-suppression policies, today's forests are much denser than they have been for thousands of years, ecologists say, leading to a recent spike in hotter, more catastrophic fires.
Certainly, the heat and severity of the fires around Los Alamos are beyond what many firefighters have seen in their lifetimes. "In some places, the fire was so hot that the soil is sterilized," says Paxon, the Forest Service spokesman. "In some places, you might see glass beads like when the atomic bomb was first exploded."
Many forest experts now say the key to a healthy forest is to bring back the occasional fire, including controlled or prescribed burns.
"We have this myth that the most recent colonists, the European-Americans, stepped onto lands that were unaffected by people," says Manuel Molles, a forest biologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "In fact, the native Americans were managing that land, and fire was an extremely important part of that management."
Calling for more controlled burns may sound counterintuitive, particularly while Los Alamos continues to smolder. In fact, Dr. Molles says that prescribed burns should be avoided during years of extreme heat and drought, like this year. But he says that bringing fire back into forestry management and reintroducing spring floods to flatland forests, will do much to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires.
"I think the Los Alamos fire can serve as a wake-up call," he says.
For the firefighters at Los Alamos, there's no question that something needs to change to reduce the magnitude of the fires they have to fight. But in the meantime, they feel ready to fight, no matter how long the fire season lasts. If there's a fire, "we're there, that's our job," says Tom King, a half-Blackfoot Indian and chief of the Rocky Mountain Fire Suppression group from Denver.
"It takes a toll on your family," he adds, noting that his wife and four kids often don't see him "from April till October. That's hard, but you make precious time with your family in winter."
While most firefighters say the thing that keeps them going during 48-hour shifts is a combination of adrenaline and a desire to help others, local firefighters say the drive can be more direct.
"I shed a lot of tears when I'm driving through the town, because some of these people have no homes," says Justin Grider, who echoes other Los Alamos firefighters when he says he fought for every home as if it were his own.
"It's an unwillingness to lose," adds Mark Williams, another Los Alamos firefighter. "If the whole thing burns down, it won and you lost." He smiles. "I don't like to lose."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society