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A summer like no other looms ahead


SWAN VALLEY, Mont. - The sweet aroma from a mock orange bush wafts through the air, but Steve Gauger is not here to look at wildflowers. He's monitoring a wildfire.

Like many firefighters, Gauger, incident commander on Montana's recent 220-acre Goat Creek Fire, is scratching his head over this year's early fires. On the high peaks and north-facing slopes, snowbanks still glisten. It is typically the time of year Montana firefighters begin sharpening their Pulaskis or setting controlled burns.

"If this weather keeps up, it's going to be one hot fire season," Gauger says.

Below-average snowpacks and weeks of hot weather beginning in late April have dried out the forests and grasslands of the northern tier states. On the plains east of the Rockies, drought is threatening crops and rangeland. In north-central Montana, farmers report that summer grasshoppers, insects that thrive in drought, are already jumping about their fields.

And there is a strong likelihood that little rain will fall this summer. National Weather Service records show that seven out of the last 11 El Niûo events have been followed by summers with below-normal rainfall.

In a typical spring, fires would be igniting in the Southeast and Southwest, not the Northern Rockies; in early May, the Goat Creek Fire was the only one in the country to call in a Type II interagency overhead team - an action taken when a fire grows too large for local resources.

The National Interagency Fire Center also dispatched four hotshot crews from New Mexico, Arizona and Oregon to the Goat Creek Fire. Ordinarily, local crews would have worked the blaze, but training hadn't started for Montana firefighters, many of whom were taking college final exams in early May.

Fire conditions here now stand at July levels - moderate to high. Moisture content in woody debris covering the forest floor is way down, says Bill Swope, fire management officer on the Swan Lake Ranger District. "I've never seen things burn this well, this early in the year."

Montana workers are scrambling to get ready.

"We've also stepped up prevention measures with media announcements," Gauger said. "Earlier this spring, a bunch of grass and debris fires got away from private land owners and burned some sheds, barns and a mobile home. That got people's attention. The message is - this is a different type of spring."

By contrast, the fire season has gotten off to a slow start in the Southwest and Southeast, says James Stone, public affairs specialist with the fire center in Boise, Idaho.

But things could change quickly in the Southwest, says Dan Key, the Gila National Forest's Hotshots superintendent in Silver City, N.M.

"The rain this winter made for lots of grass," he says.

The Goat Creek Fire started in a logged area heavily littered with slash on property owned by Plum Creek Timber Co. in the Swan Valley, north of Seeley Lake. Driven by wind, it spread across the steep south-facing slope, then moved higher into mixed conifer forest on national forest land, eventually consuming 220 acres. One firefighter was slightly injured.

In 1988, 72,750 fires burned 5.9 million acres across the nation, while 1996 saw 6.6 million acres scorched. Big fires can close public lands to recreation, scare off tourists and drape valleys with thick smoke.

"The stage is set to be like '88 and '96," says Ray Corral, squad boss for the Silver City Hotshots. "If this is Act I, it could be a long show this year."

Mark Matthews reports from Missoula, Mont.