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Dangerous fire season looms

High temperatures, drought take toll in West

DENVER – The West’s 2012 wildfire season exploded in earnest last month with a wind-whipped blaze that killed three people in rugged alpine canyon country near Denver. It took a 700-strong federal firefighting team a week of labor, day and night, to tame the blaze – and other states throughout the West took notice.

Fire experts say this year’s drought, low snowpack and record-high temperatures in much of the West portend a dangerous installment of what has become a year-round wildfire threat.

Wildfires burned more than 1,500 square miles in Arizona last year and have already torched about 12 square miles this year. Most were caused by people, and fire officials hope the public has learned some lessons from the Wallow Fire, the worst in state history. Campfire embers ignited a blaze that forced nearly 10,000 people to evacuate their homes.

New Mexico, too, experienced its two biggest-ever wildfires in 2011, consuming 245 and 160 square miles, respectively.

“We are approaching this as a season where we still have very high fire danger and there are millions of acres around New Mexico that could burn,” said Dan Ware, a New Mexico State Forestry Division spokesman.

January and February were the driest on record in California, where the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has battled 679 fires in its jurisdiction – about a third of the state – since Jan. 1, compared to 210 over the same period last year. Fire threats are expected to be above normal in the mountains, the central coast and inland areas such as San Bernardino County.

Nearly all of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah have drought conditions that should persist at least through June, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb. For much of the West, snowfall this winter was disappointing. Snowpack in Colorado and Utah is only half of average and diminishing fast. Salt Lake City reported its fourth-driest March ever; Denver had a trace of precipitation in what traditionally is the snowiest month of the year.

The Spokane region is doing better. On April 1, mountain snowpack in the area was 114 percent of normal, according to the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.

In many areas of the West, grass, brush, timber and other wildfire fuels didn’t get a winter soaking that allows them to retain water. California had a few storms in March, but “when you miss three or four months without any rain, it just becomes too late,” said Daniel Berlant, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise expects to issue its comprehensive regional outlook May 1. Jeremy Sullens, a wildfire analyst with Predictive Services, an interagency group affiliated with the center, said many states are still transitioning to spring and that green-up – the growth of grasses and plants that provide initial fuel for forest and rangeland fires – is in the early stages.

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