Predictions call for fewer wildfires

Forecasters say U.S. wildfire season through October will see an average or below average number of fires

BY DENISE CHANDLER | BALTIMORE | August 21, 2010


Forecasters are predicting a normal to below normal wildfire season in the U.S. through October thanks largely to late spring rains in the Rocky Mountains.

The latest forecasts are a welcome change for firefighters. In May the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) had predicted an unusually active wildfire season. The earlier prediction was based on a strong El Nino winter weather pattern that left terrain drier than normal with the potential for higher than normal wildfires in areas including the Northern Rockies of Montana and Idaho; portions of eastern Washington; northwestern Wyoming and a portion of south-central Oregon stretching down into the northeastern corner of California.

Ken Frederick of The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) now says because of the late spring the onset of the fire season will be delayed. “This year right after spring we hit got a lot of rain over the west. That slowed downed the melting of the snowpack and retarded the drying of vegetation.”

But in British Columbia residents have experienced one of the worst fire seasons on record. Health officials in parts of that Canadian province recommended residents stay inside this week when smoke and ash was so thick that some airlines were forced to cancel flights into local airports.

More than 670,000 acres have burned so far this year in British Columbia. That’s more than two and half times the number of acres normally reported by this time of year.

In the U.S. however, on Saturday, NIFC reported light initial activities with 151 new fires reported across the country. Several dozen structures are threatened from wildfires in Oregon where 12 large fires had not yet been contained.

Overall, the entire country is looking at a normal to below normal wildfire season. Rick Ochoa of NIFC says current weather patterns point to a short fire season from August through October.. The predictive services arm of NIFC meets to determine the monthly outlooks. The committee is made up of meteorologists, representatives from NOAA, and college professors who make predictions based upon climatological data. One group determines outlooks for the eastern United States and the other determines outlooks for the western United States. Ochoa says the monthly outlooks through early September that NIFC releases will not show any significant new fire potential.

That is good news for the U.S. Forest Service that has been working with an aging fleet of fire bombers. The bombers used to drop fire retardant on wildfires has dwindled significantly from 44 six years ago to just 16 and are due to be phased out entirely in two years because most are 50 years old and costly to maintain.

The U.S. Forest Service will be forced to use heavy helicopters and single-engine air tankers known as SEATS until the bombers can be replaced. Forest Service authorities estimate that it will take at least $2.5 billion dollars to replace the tankers which cost at least $75 million each. The federal government has not yet finalized a plan to fund the replacement.

One possible option to replace the tankers has been met with resistance. The Russian built Ilyushin-76 is a turbofan jet cargo aircraft capable of covering the equivalent of 12 football fields in 10 seconds with fire retardant material. The Il-76 is not approved for flight in the United States. Global Emergency Response, the company that is marketing the aircraft has been trying for at least 15 years to gain approval for flight in the US. Tom Robinson, Chief Administrator of that company, contends that the Il-76 is crucial to fighting wildfires in the United States. “The United States is still the only country that can’t put out fires in timely manner”. Robinson claims the Il-76 is not only cost effective but also uses environmentally friendly chemicals to extinguish fires. The Il-76 was used to bring supplies to Haiti after the devastating earthquake six months ago.

Meanwhile, further north, on Thursday, residents of the British Columbian city of Williams Lake watched as ash from intense fires in the Cariboo region fell like snow in that part of the Canadian province. In Kamloops, stores closed and residents were urged to stay indoors. The residents of more than 700 homes were evacuated as a result of the fires. Further east in Alberta, the heavy smoke was responsible for an official health warning that suggested residents also stay indoors.


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National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC)

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