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Fire managers predict busy season in West

Central Washington risk above normal

BOISE – Federal fire managers predict relentless drought and low snowpack in northern California will bring a busy wildfire season this summer, a troubling outlook for a region of the West that got scorched last year.

The National Interagency Fire Center, headquartered in Boise, released a 2009 Wildland Fire Outlook on Friday also forecasting above-normal fire activity in north-central Washington, southern Arizona and southern New Mexico.

In northern California, where nearly 1 million acres burned last year, the report says a dry spring is expected to exacerbate several years of drought and bring on an early wildfire season.

The potential for significant fire activity is expected to begin in northern California in May and increase from June through August, the report says.

The fire center defines “significant fire potential” as a wildfire likely to require help from outside the region where the blaze started.

“We are very concerned going into a third season of a drought with already dry conditions,” said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“We’ve already had a number of small fires across the state,” Berlant said.

Last year, the agency hired 3,100 seasonal firefighters to battle wildfires that charred 1.6 million acres statewide, he said. The seasonal firefighters are usually hired from late May to the middle of June.

“We’ve already started to train somewhere around 1,000,” Berlant said Friday.

In north-central Washington, another region of particular concern in the report, a dry spring and low snowpack left over from winter are the driving forces behind forecasts for significant fire potential to increase in June.

Snow buildup is expected to melt fast and allow more time for timber, grasses and brush to dry and become ready fuels, said Rick Ochoa, national fire weather program manager for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

“The snow is kind of like a security blanket – the longer it stays on, the shorter the fire season,” Ochoa said.

Washington has had a fairly low fire danger in the past two years, said Greg Sinnett, meteorologist for the Washington state Department of Natural Resources. But Sinnett said last month that weather conditions along the equator so far this year are comparable to conditions in 2006, which was a big fire year in north-central Washington.

Mountain snowpack is strong this year in most regions of the state, except north-central Washington, where stream flows are already running below normal.

The 2006 Tripod fire, two fires that joined after being sparked separately by lightning, burned 274 square miles of beetle-infested trees in the thick Okanogan and Wenatchee national forests.

Fire managers also predict the potential for fire activity will be significant in southern Arizona and southern New Mexico as cool spring winds gradually give way to hot, dry weather during late May to early June.

At the same time, rainy weather is expected to cover west Texas and eastern New Mexico and temper the likelihood of wildfires in those regions, the report says.

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