Drought kindles big fire season in West

The number of acres burned across the West so far this season is double the average for the past decade.

As the story goes, it was Mrs. Murphy's cow kicking over a lantern that started the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. In southern California this week, a hapless red-tailed hawk got zapped on a power line, sparking a conflagration that drove hundreds of people from their homes, torched several thousand acres, and has yet to be contained.

So far this year, the summer fire season has taken off like sparks through dry tinder. Up to this point in the June to October wildfire season, the number of acres burned is double the average for the past decade - already more than what burned in all of 2003.

As the week started, 28 large fires were burning over 3.4 million acres. Most of those are in Alaska, where unusual dryness, temperatures in the 80s, and lightning strikes have combined to ignite the black spruce and tundra. The state is experiencing its third-worst fire season on record.

For some people in the fire zones, the cost is inconvenience. For a while, Arthur Hussey's Cessna 182 was stranded in Coldfoot, Alaska. He couldn't get back home to Fairbanks due to heavy smoke from nearby fires.

In Yosemite National Park, vacationers have had to endure smoky skies and warnings from park officials not to overexert themselves because of "very unhealthy air quality in the morning."

In some areas, fires have been more than inconvenient. Some 1,600 households in Santa Clarita, Calif. had to evacuate quickly when one fire jumped a containment line.

In northern Nevada, an illegal campfire started a 7,600-acre blaze that destroyed 15 homes and burned to within a half-mile of the governor's mansion in Carson City.

As usual, the national burn pattern is divided by the 100th meridian. Dropped down from the central Dakotas through the middle of Texas, this longitudinal plummet line historically divides the moist East from the arid West. (Rain never did "follow the plow," as 19th-century land promoters had promised farmers coming from back East.)

Through July, the Southeast, plus large chunks of the upper midwest, the mid-Atlantic region, and the south-central states, are expected to enjoy below normal fire potential.

But out here in the West - from the Mexican border up through the Rockies, the Sierras, and the Cascades, plus a great mass of central Alaska - forests, high desert, and steep canyons are experiencing above normal fire potential. Or as fire experts call it, "very high to extreme fire indices" - the combination of heat, lack of humidity, wind, thunderstorm patterns, and fuels (trees, shrubs, and grasses unusually stressed by recent drought and consequent insect damage).

Meanwhile, the weather outlook for August through October calls for hotter than normal temperatures in the West. California and the Great Basin are expected to be drier than usual. To the extent that they have the resources, firefighters this year are attacking fires before they become officially "large" (more than 500 acres) - especially in heavily populated areas like southern California.

As with every other issue in an election year, wildfire has a prominent political dimension.

President Bush sees the need for his "Healthy Forests Initiative" and other programs to speed up salvage logging in areas that have burned in past years. The timber industry likes his approach. In line with what environmentalists want, Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts touts his plan to reduce fire danger by concentrating timber thinning near communities while spending more on forest restoration by ending government subsidies for the timber industry.

Even the Iraq War factors into concerns about fire fighting. Governors Ted Kulongoski (D) of Oregon and Dirk Kempthorne (R) of Idaho both worry that they won't have the usual numbers of National Guard troops to help fight fires. More than 40 percent of those fighting in Iraq are in National Guard or Reserve units.

Ironically, this may mean that active-duty Army and Marine Corps troops from Camp Pendleton in California and Fort Lewis in Washington State get sent to fight fires at home while citizen-soldiers do battle with Iraqi insurgents abroad.

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