By Dillon Tabish, 5-01-12
||Caption: Castle Rock Fire, Ketchum, ID, 2007. - Photo courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center
“Fire season is upon us,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack declared last week as warm weather continued to sweep across drought-stricken sections of the country and incite fire outbreaks.
The first three months of 2012 were the warmest on record for the contiguous United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Every state experienced at least one record high temperature in March – there were 15,272 in all – and the average overall temperature in the U.S. was 42 degrees Fahrenheit, six degrees above the long-term average. The average temperature through March has only surpassed 40 degrees four times since 1920, according to NOAA.
The warming does not bode well for fire season, particularly in regions already lacking moisture. Through April 3, 36.8 percent of the U.S. was experiencing drought, according to NOAA. What’s more, warmer-than-average conditions create an environment favorable for severe thunderstorms. The areas of most concern are currently the Southwest, parts of the Midwest and the western slopes of the Rockies.
Yet forecasters acknowledge the difficulty of making predictions amid rapidly changing global weather patterns.
“Anything can happen,” Vilsack said.
In a sign that this could be a repeat of last year’s historic season, over 100 large fires have already hit sections of the country, including the West.
“Regions across the country face serious risks of extreme wildfires this year because of the mild winter and low precipitation levels in many areas,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.
In a national conference call outlining the federal government’s readiness for fire season, Salazar, Vilsack and other top officials said the nation’s wildfire resources were prepared for the upcoming months when regions across the U.S. are likely to face another extreme wildfire season.
“We are ready to meet the challenge,” Vilsack said. “Our concern does not stop at the border of federal lands but, rather, a strategy that is an all-lands approach for safety and wildfire management.”
Western Montana has largely avoided the wrath of a bad fire season since 2007 and could again this summer. Early forecasts suggest the region could have a mild season thanks to favorable conditions from normal and above normal precipitation during winter. But unlike last year, when a wet spring deterred fire season until late July, this year’s conditions are similar to previous bad fire seasons.
There’s also the threat of amassing fire fuels, particularly throughout the West. A century of fire exclusion has left public lands overstocked, fire officials warn, and efforts are being accelerated to restore safe, healthy ecosystems with thinning and prescribed burning operations by federal land managers and their partners across jurisdictions.
“It seems like (a bad fire season) might be coming our way but we’ll have to see if things line up and what happens the next six to eight weeks,” said Rick Connell, Flathead National Forest’s fire management officer. “It really depends on what June does.”
Connell said the local agency would be assembling its full complement of fire resources in the coming weeks, including the hotshot crew and seasonal staff. The agency will have the same amount of resources as last year, he said.
Local resources have already been working throughout the Flathead Valley this spring, after slash piles and other planned burns have gotten out of hand in some instances.
“Our recommendation is always that people are very careful with their debris burning efforts,” said Steve Frye, the area operations manager for the Northwest Land Office of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in Kalispell. “They do need a permit and they need to be aware of the weather conditions, not only when they initiate their burn but what the forecast is beyond their start.”
Frye correlated the fires to recent warm temperatures that have rapidly melted snow levels and signaled the arrival of early fire season conditions.
“We have noticed that there are more snow-free areas now than there were at this time last year,” Frye said.
Frye said the full force of DNRC resources is also fully organizing in the next few weeks.
“From our perspective we will be ready (for fire season),” he said. “We are fortunate to have a number of our experienced firefighters returning and it’s the same with the (helicopter) crew. We feel very fortunate in that regard.”
Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester recently questioned the Forest Service’s suppression capabilities in the event of a severe fire season. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell responded that the USFS is in the process of increasing its capabilities, but admitted there’s a need for more large air tankers.
“If it becomes a much more active fire season than what we currently predict, there will be times when there is a shortage of resources and we will have to deal with that,” Tidwell said, according to Tester’s office.
The Forest Service’s fleet of firefighting airplanes is 75 percent smaller than a decade ago, Tester’s office said. There are currently 11 planes on contract, with three more being added this year along with a very large air tanker, Tidwell said.
Federal resources respond to more than 20,000 wildfires per year on average. A majority of those fires are suppressed on initial attack, according to the Forest Service. In the past 10 years, wildfires have destroyed 28,000 homes, businesses and outbuildings, according to the USFS.
The majority of fires across the country are human caused, according to the USFS.
“We’re always working to remind everyone of the potential for large fires and of those things they can do to prevent or protect their homes and acreages,” Frye said. “We’re always trying to remind them to not forget the fact that the potential always exists.”
For more information about fire prevention, visit dnrc.mt.gov/forestry/Fire/Prevention/
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