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 May.


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 up elsewhere.


* Elizabeth Manning, HCN reporter