Fire officials from California to Florida are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst with predictions of a fierce 2007 wildfire season.
A harbinger of the fire season already has been seen in several states, from the 2,036-acre wildfire earlier this month that forced evacuations from wealthy enclaves in Orange County, Calif., to the more than 5,000 acres that have burned so far this year in Virginia.
While the actual number of wildfires and acreage burned in the first three months of 2007 is down from the previous year, officials say conditions - drought, low snowpack and higher than normal temperatures - all could contribute to creating an extremely busy and active fire season.
The National Interagency Fire Center reported that from Jan. 1 through March 16, there were a total of 10,604 fires nationwide that have blackened 155,552 acres. That was below figures from the same period a year earlier, when 14,978 fires were reported, which covered more than 1 million acres. Fire officials called the figures from 2006 "an anomaly" due in large part to fires in the South.
On average since 2000, there have been 11,227 fires covering 330,281 acres in the first quarter, the agency reported.
"There are a lot of drought conditions throughout the nation," an agency spokesman said. "In the western states, there's more concern than in the last several years."
"Significant fire potential is expected to be higher than normal from the Pacific Northwest to the western Great Lakes, Southern California, western Arizona and portions of the Southeast," the agency said in a preliminary report on the 2007 fire season.
An updated report is due out at the end of April.
The National Weather Service already has issued red-flag warnings for several states, signifying a high risk of wildfires due to hot and dry conditions.
The drought conditions throughout much of the nation have firefighters bracing for a difficult fire season. Much of California, for example, has experienced its driest fall and winter in more than a century. The Los Angeles area has had less than 2.5 inches of rain since July; normal rainfall for the area is more than 11.5 inches. Forecasters said no rainfall is expected there for the foreseeable future.
"With the dry season fast approaching, there are major concerns that drought conditions will not only fail to improve but actually worsen in coming months," said Doug Lecomte, drought specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center. "The outlook for any significant drought improvement from now through spring looks grim for not only Southern California but for much of the Southwest as well."
Drought conditions were expected to persist or intensify through June over much of the Southwest and could extend into parts of Utah and western Colorado. Drought conditions were also expected to persist across peninsular Florida, the agency said.
Some improvement was predicted over the extreme northern Plains as well as for portions of Texas and Oklahoma, NOAA said. The Interagency Fire Center said conditions in Texas and Oklahoma were improved from the previous year, bringing the fire potential to normal and below normal levels.
In Minnesota, officials warned of fire danger caused by dry conditions in the northwest part of the state coupled with timber that has been killed by bugs, and homes that have been built in wooded areas.
Florida officials, predicting drier than normal conditions through spring, were also warning of the potential for a severe fire season until summer rainfalls begin.
"We're the driest this early in the season that I have seen in a number of years," said Robert Van Winkle, chief meteorologist at television station NBC2 in Ft. Myers on the southwest coast.
Several small fires were reported around the state this week, including one in Florida City on Monday that burned about 15 acres and prompted the evacuation of about 20 homes in southwest Miami-Dade County. A 70-acre blaze was reported earlier in Fort Walton Beach as well as a small brush fire in Palm Bay. Firefighters also reported containment of an 850-acre blaze in the Big Cypress National Preserve near Ochopee. No homes were damaged and there were no injuries in any of the fires.
In the first two months of the year, the Florida Division of Forestry reported 604 wildfires encompassing more than 58,000 acres. Georgia officials reported more than 300 fires in the first week of March. Those fires burned nearly 2,000 acres.
Firefighters in the Reno, Nev., area already have battled a series of blazes, including one Saturday that destroyed one home and damaged eight others. The blaze, which burned about 20 acres, forced the evacuation of about 40 families.
The fire was fanned by wind gusts of up to 20 mph. Higher than normal temperatures coupled with low humidity and dry brush helped fuel the fire.
"It's really scary conditions for this time of year," said Battalion Chief Curtis Johnson of the Reno Fire Department. "It's unusual for this time of year. We have June or July conditions right now."
Florida officials said they also are seeing summer-like conditions on the ground from measurements based on the Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI), which indicates the dryness of the soil and surface fuels.
On a scale of zero to 800 on KBDI - with 800 representing absolutely dry conditions and severe wildfire danger - 20 percent of the state was measured at 600. Three counties, Lee, Collier and Hendry, were currently averaging 652, officials said, with some areas within those counties above 700.
A zero measurement means the ground was saturated with moisture and there was no moisture depletion.
"The outlook for the rest of the peak fire season is continuing hot and dry weather with increasing fire danger and fire potential," the Florida Division of Forestry said.
In Montana, where the low snowpack was melting rapidly, officials were warning that the fire season there could get off to an early start. The Interagency Fire Center noted in its preliminary wildland fire outlook report that snowpack was "generally below normal across the West."
In Arizona, meantime, Gov. Janet Napolitano has declared the week of March 18-24 as Wildfire Awareness Week and urged residents to take precautions. The state already has experienced five days of record-setting temperatures this month with the mercury soaring into the upper 90s.
Gov. Edward G. Rendell also declared the same week Wildfire Prevention Week in Pennsylvania. Nearly 85 percent of Pennsylvania's wildfires occur in March, April and May, he noted.
"Last spring brought many brush and woodlands fires, showing us how quickly our wealth of forest resources can be endangered by carelessness," Rendell said. "People cause 98 percent of wildfires. A mere spark by a careless person can touch off a devastating forest blaze when conditions are ripe."
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