Drought and spring rains portend an explosive summer


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "What happened to winter?"

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.

Most 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 already arriving.

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.

In 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.

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