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Busy wildfire season predicted

Less devastation expected than in 2002

By Marsha Walton

A fireman fights a wildfire in Colorado in 2002.
A fireman fights a wildfire in Colorado in 2002.

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(CNN) -- Fire experts trying to prepare for protecting the nation's forests predict a busier fire season than normal this year, but nowhere near the devastation caused by the wildfires in 2002.

Forecasting when and where fire dangers will appear is the job of Rick Ochoa, national fire weather program manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Firefighting teams across the United States use the predictions of Ochoa and his colleagues at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho to position equipment and personnel.

"In a way, fighting fires is like a military operation," Ochoa said. "We try to tell where the next battle will be."

Among the factors they'll look at: winter and spring precipitation, snow melting, patterns of spring rainfall, Santa Ana winds, dry lightning and fuel conditions. Fuel availability includes the number of trees and the condition and moisture in them. Trees that have been drought -stressed are weaker and more susceptible to insect infestations.

A beetle's toll

From California to Colorado, the tiny bark beetle has already exacted a huge toll threatening an estimated 21 million acres of forest an area nearly as large as the state of Indiana. Dead and dying trees burn faster than living, healthy ones.

Forecasters also use historical comparisons to try to gauge what kind of a fire season it will be.

"But weather can be a lot like the stock market," said Marc Rounsaville, director of fire and aviation for the U.S. Forest Service southern region. "You can look at historical weather comparisons, trends, and similarities, but that's not always an accurate predictor of current conditions."

While their major focus is this year's fire season, scientists also look to long-term solutions as well.

"We see increasing fire problems because of global warming, we know that drier conditions will exist over the next 10-20 years, and we have to figure out what actions to take," Ochoa said.

Political blazes ignited

Forecasters say much of the interior West, South and central Alaska, parts of California, the western Great Lakes states, and northern Maine are expected to have an above normal fire season. Ochoa said he also will keep an eye on eastern Oregon. A lot of spring rain has lessened the risks of fires in the southeast, he added.

Forest service officials say cost effectiveness must also be part of their decision making. Last year $500 million was spent on the four largest fires of the season. Much of that went to the fire aviation budget.

The summer of 2002 was one of the costliest wildfire seasons in half a century. Fires claimed the lives of 23 firefighters; destroyed more than 800 homes, scorched about 7 million acres, and cost $1.5 billion.

There also were 13 aviation accidents fighting wildfires last year, that resulted in six fatalities. The Forest Service has grounded some of its large air tankers after those accidents. This year crews will rely more on single engine air tankers.

The prospects for still another tough fire season may also ignite some political blazes: President Bush's proposed Healthy Forests Initiative would quicken the process used to conduct timber sales on Federal lands.

Supporters, including many Western legislators, communities, and timber industry interests, say the expedited process would help clear forests that are choked with decades' worth of timber and underbrush, reducing the fire risk.

But opponents, including many environmentalists and wildlife biologists, view the proposal as an attempt to use the fire issue to clear out political and scientific opposition to increased logging.

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