As this summer began, wildfire concerns across most of the American West were so strong that many communities immediately went on high alert about everything from public ashtrays to picnic grills to sparklers for the Fourth of July. After drought, bark beetle devastation, and memories of catastrophic wildfires in Arizona and California the past four years - and with predictions of hot, dry weather ahead - the word was out: Be ready for the worst.
Three months later, with the driest, hottest season behind most of the states, the same officials are breathing a sigh of relief. In Alaska, record fires have destroyed 6.5 million acres of forest - roughly the size of Vermont - but the affected area in the lower 48 states has been about half of the average over the past decade.
The same officials hasten to add that the period of highest danger is still ahead for southern California, where last October's fires were the most devastating in state history. But overall, fire destruction has been dramatically reduced, they say, because of two main factors: fewer lightning storms and the combination of ready personnel and a more aware public.
While it's difficult to predict the former, the latter is worthy of self-congratulations, they say.
"We are much better at responding to fires in the first 24 hours with better training, equipment, and personnel than just three years ago," says Randy Eardley, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center, in Boise, Idaho.
Beyond the enhanced capabilities of rural fire departments to isolate and contain fires before they spread, Mr. Eardley says normal citizens are doing a better job of avoiding the kind of actions that once displeased Smokey Bear - leaving fires unattended, tossing matches and cigarettes, and kicking glowing tinder into dry brush.
"The public has finally gotten more educated about being more careful when they are out recreating and camping," says Eardley. He says there is also a more watchful environment for catching the mistakes of others, as well as identifying arsonists.
On the heels of the wildfires that made headlines for weeks in nearly 20 locations in southern California last year, government purse strings have loosened for crucial funding of equipment and personnel.
"We had been saying for years that we needed four firemen for each engine rather than three because that allows us to suppress these big fires before they get going," says Dick Hayes, deputy chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "After last year's fires in this state, the state has finally said 'yes' and dipped into fire emergency funds. That has made a lot of difference."
Whatever combination of better weather and preparedness, statistics so far this year tell the result. The tally of 59,180 fires to date is below the 10-year average of 65,881 by this month, and acreage burned (subtracting Alaska) is 1,323, 655 acres - compared with the 10-year average of 3,326,000, according to Eardley.
Alaska, however, does tell a different story. Extremely dry weather and unusual amounts of overdry fuel ignited the second-most devastating fires in history. But the state is so big, officials point out (about 125 million forested acres), that the fires tend be put in a different perspective - and handled differently.
"Because there are so few roads, the suppression costs are a lot more expensive than letting the fires burn," says Judy Plocher, intelligence dispatcher for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center. For the entire state, four Hotshot crews of 20 people, 66 smoke jumpers, and 20 fire-suppression specialists fought fires so large that smoke debris wafted across Colorado to Houston.
"Funding is always a frustration, but there is nothing we can do about it," says Ms. Plocher, reflecting a comment made by other cash-strapped states in recent years. "It's always a terrible thing when you lose this much land," she says. "But with lightning to blame, there is no one to fault. We are just thanking God that we have had no serious injuries and no fatalities. That is major progress over previous years."
The lightning storms that are responsible for 60 percent of forest fire damage in the lower 48 states - mainly because they start in rural areas away from concentrations of firefighters - have been way down this year.
Experts say no predictable scientific cause is responsible - just the vagaries of which storms passed through which areas, as well as what the lightning struck and how dry it was.
But experts do know that southern California's ultra-hot, ultra-dry Santa Ana winds come in October and November, and thus they're hesitant to pronounce the fire danger for 2004 over.
"When the Santa Anas come to southern California, all bets are off," says Mr. Hayes. "Last year the state did not even have bad fire conditions prior to their arrival ... and when they came, they changed the whole picture in an instant."