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Wildfire risk grows

In a predicted ‘above normal’ season, wildfires are already burning across the western United States.

BY HEATHER MOYER | STANFIELD, Ariz. | May 27, 2005

"This is the fourth fire this team has been on in our zone – central Arizona – in a month."

—Wendell Peacock

In a predicted ‘above normal’ season, wildfires are already burning across the western United States.

Firefighters in Stanfield, Ariz. contained the Vekol wildfire late Sunday night, but not before it burned 6,200 acres and sent some residents scrambling from their homes. No structures ended up burning, but at least 60 homes had been prepared to evacuate at the first word from officials.

The blaze is still being monitored by firefighters for any hot spots, but the worst is over for now. Yet the fire season in Arizona has already been busy for the crew that fought the Vekol wildfire.

“This is the fourth fire this team has been on in our zone – central Arizona – in a month,” explained Wendell Peacock, instant information officer with the Central West Zone Incident Management Team.

“It will be worse as the summer goes by if people continue to be careless with fire. Every one of the fires we’ve been on this month has been caused by people.”

Already, a new wildfire is scorching southwestern Arizona. The Memorial wildfire has burned more than 500 acres near Fountain Hills.

Alaska is seeing a few large wildfires already, as well. The Dot Lake blaze is threatening homes and community buildings near the small town of Tok in the eastern part of the state.

Conditions are ripe for a significant fire season across much of the West. According to the 2005 Wildland Fire Outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), “fire potential for most of the west is expected to be above normal.”

Oddly enough, the recent heavy rainfall in the west and southwest is partly to blame for the ‘above normal’ prediction for those regions.

“That’s the old ‘half-full, half-empty glass’ thing,” laughed Tom Wordell, wildfire analyst for the NIFC.

“Obviously the rains have been good for the drought in some respects – in terms of stream flow, reservoir capacity, agriculture, and those things. But those rains have also caused vegetation growth, and the timing of when those fuels cure out and when the lightning season begins is kind of critical.”

It’s a double-edged sword for those regions, he added. The rains pushed back the normal start of the wildfire seasons there, but now that warm weather is moving in the season could be even worse due to plentiful, dried-out vegetation.

Wordell said southern Nevada could see some of the worst wildfires this season because of just that combination. The region had been in a serious drought for years and ripe for wildfires due to the dryness. Yet with no real vegetation around to burn, the area escaped fierce fire seasons most of the time.

“This year they’ve got the fuel, though,” he said.

A low snowpack in higher elevations from the Pacific Northwest to the Dakotas prompts the ‘above normal’ prediction for those areas.

Despite the prospect of a busy season, officials at the NIFC and the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) – which provides daily wildland fire updates – are not worried about their fire crews.

“Realistically, in a normal fire season, our staffing levels are fine,” said Chuck Wamack, assistant center manager of the NICC. The NICC also relies on local contractors to assist with firefighting, and on the military when fire seasons get very out of hand.

“The military is always there for us, but it takes a really big year before we go see them for help,” added Wamack.

The most recent assistance the military provided was two years ago, and Wamack noted that it’s been even longer than that since more than one battalion has been called up to help.

Yet still, the NIFC is always looking for and training firefighters. “We have a 40-hour basic firefighter academy we put on across the nation every year.”

As for the equipment the crews use, some might call the U.S. wildfire crews one of the best equipped teams in the world. With more than 700 helicopters, 90 single-engine air tankers, and access to several military C-130 aircraft when needed, most teams have quite an aerial arsenal when they need it.

Right now the NIFC is working to improve its larger air tankers, some of which were used in World War II. “The age issue is specifically relevant to the fleet of heavy aircraft we use,” said Rose Davis, spokesperson for the NIFC. That issue went through an external review committee for comments and ideas after two of the aged air tankers crashed in 2002.

“Everyone has said that this fleet is not sustainable,” Davis noted. “This is a concern for us, and we’ve opened the door to working with the air tanker industry.”

Already several companies are testing younger aircraft to see their range and capacity potentials for firefighting. Davis added that it is hard to say just how soon any new air tankers will be added to the fleet, as the testing and certification process for such aircraft is lengthy and rigorous.

“Aerial firefighting is risky, so we have to do everything we possibly can to mitigate the risk.”

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