Where there's drought, there's fire, and this year, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies are bracing for a fierce summer.
Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, D,
whose Department of Ecology declared a statewide drought emergency
on March 10, has requested additional funding from the state
Legislature for the early hiring and training of state
firefighters. She has also asked that Washington National Guard
troops be prepared to help fight fires this summer.
Washington National Guard members — and their equipment
— are expected to be at home and available to help. But other
states in the region could be looking to Washington for assistance:
Oregon's entire fleet of Chinook helicopters is in Afghanistan, and
1,400 of the 3,300 members of the Montana National Guard are
currently on active duty in Iraq. In March, Montana Gov. Brian
Schweitzer, D, asked that all Guard troops from his state be
returned home "as soon as practicable" to help fight summer fires.
"The Montana National Guard has always played a vital role in
combating wildland fires," Schweitzer wrote in a March 7 letter to
National Guard Bureau Chief H. Steven Blum, "and they're needed now
more than ever."
Schweitzer's request had no effect, but
he had good reason to make it: Warnings of a savage fire season are
Jerry Piering of the Oregon Department
of Forestry says that in normal years, when logging companies set
fire to slash piles in late winter, the flames usually confine
themselves to tinder less than one inch thick. But in mid-February
this year, he says, the wood was so dry that the flames "were
acting like the burns we do in May or June," chewing into logs nine
inches across. In early March, the state agency was busy helping
homeowners control runaway debris-pile fires.
mid-March, climate scientists at the Forest Service and Oregon
State University combined short-term predictions from five global
climate models with detailed vegetation data. Their analysis
anticipated "unusually severe" wildfires in large parts of Oregon,
Washington, Northern California, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. "Most
of the fires forecast are large fires — greater than 10,000
acres," says Forest Service bioclimatologist Ron Neilson.
If the recent spring rains in the Northwest continue into early
summer, "that would help us quite a bit," says Rick Ochoa, the fire
weather program manager at the National Interagency Fire Center in
Boise. But if the rains taper off in April or May, he adds, they
may ultimately do more harm than good, encouraging grass to grow
into a flammable carpet for summer fires, but not providing enough
moisture to soak through logs.
Rain is also having ironic
effects in the Southwest, where the wet winter nurtured a bumper
crop of grass and brush at low elevations. While damp forested
areas are unlikely to burn much this year, Ochoa points out that
deserts and grasslands in Southern California, Arizona and New
Mexico face serious fire danger.