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Drought heightens fire risk

Lingering drought in the western U.S. could produce a highly damaging wildfire season that could start as soon as May, predicted forecasters.

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | April 4, 2005

Lingering drought in the western U.S. could produce a highly damaging wildfire season that could start as soon as May, predicted forecasters.

Drought has rapidly worsened across the northwestern U.S. from Washington state to Oregon and eastward into Montana, according to the latest U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook provided by the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center. Some mountain snow packs have dropped to record lows.

And forecasters said it’s unlikely the northwest will see significant improvement in the drought situation anytime in the near future.

Washington state has declared a drought emergency. The state has extremely low snow pack in the mountains, and has tallied record-low stream flows across the state.

State officials advised residents that drought affects many people - from farmers who can’t plant crops to community swimming pools to landscaping businesses. Residents are being asked to conserve water.

“Local, state, tribal and federal agencies are concerned about wildfire threats this summer,” said Curt Hart, public information officer for the Washington Ecology Water Resources Program. “We have a mix of private, tribal, state and federally-owned timber lands in Washington.”

Washington is expected to have one of the driest summers on record. Snow pack is about 25-50 percent of normal in parts of Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

The U.S. Drought Monitor has rated parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho as “exceptional drought” - the worst of five drought categories.

At least some responders said they were concerned about lack of availability of the National Guard, which has assisted with fire suppression in the past. Many National Guard members are deployed in Iraq.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer went on record asking the Pentagon to return some of the state’s troops and helicopters. The National Guard denied his request but offered assurances that at least half of each state’s National Guard force is available to help with disasters.

In the Pacific southwest, even though flooding struck during the winter season in states such as California and Arizona, wildfires are still a concern. Rainfall has resulted in growth of tall grass and brush that has the potential to become tinder for this summer’s wildfires.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano has already authorized some $1.2 million for firefighters and equipment.

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