The fire season started with a vengeance this year in the parched Southwest. As of June 16, firefighters had extinguished more than 2,400 fires in Arizona and New Mexico that charred some 230,000 acres. Fire crews from all over the West are camped on the airport lawn in Albuquerque, poised for assignments.
"This has been a very bad fire
season," says Forest Service spokeswoman Carolyn Bye. "This is the
third year of a drought and it's very, very dry out there with
erratic, severe winds."
Part of the problem is
that fire danger began earlier than ever, says Forest Service
staffer Mary Bowman. Judging from fuels in the forest and weather
conditions, Bowman says, fire danger already has reached historic
highs twice this year.
Despite a widespread ban
on campfires now in place on most Southwestern forests, many of the
fires were caused by humans who can be charged for damages and
firefighting costs. After two young men let a campfire burn out of
control last month on public lands outside of Santa Fe, charring
nearly 17,000 acres, the Forest Service sent the two campers an
$8.5 million bill, although they don't expect full payment. The
Forest Service has also asked the families of two boys, ages 14 and
11, to pay part of the $900,000 it cost to contain another 320-acre
fire northeast of Flagstaff.
Given those two
incidents, environmentalists in the Southwest are upset that the
Forest Service isn't considering billing a Southwestern timber
company, Stone Forest Industries, for the Horseshoe Fire which
burned 8,600 acres on Arizona's Coconino National Forest. Although
Forest Service investigators haven't wrapped up the case, they
believe the fire was caused by a slash pile that smoldered for
three and a half months before winds caused it to reignite in late
Agency officials say it was a bizarre case.
The Forest Service checked the prescribed burn area four times
after Stone Forest Industries had finished its contract work. "It
would be pretty hard to place blame on any one entity without
placing blame on everyone," says Rodger Zanotto, a Forest Service
employee on the Coconino National Forest.
Meanwhile, firefighters are praying that the
Southwest's traditional summer "monsoons' will arrive on schedule
in early July. Other than the Southwest and the Great Basin, the
West has had a quiet fire season so far, says Jim Costamagna, a
Forest Service logistics coordinator. But as soon as the monsoons
come to the Southwest, he says, fire activity traditionally picks
* Elizabeth Manning, HCN