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Know the West

Drought ' heat = fire

  Drought ' heat = fire

This year's fire season started fast and furiously.

Across the parched states of Arizona and New Mexico, 3,600 fires have scorched some 324,000 acres. As a precautionary measure, 10 of 11 national forests in the region declared at least part of their acreage off-limits to recreationists in June.

The most dramatic story comes from northern Arizona, where conditions were dry enough by May that the Kaibab and Coconino national forests closed some 60 percent of their land. Their fear proved well-founded late last month, when five separate ponderosa pine fires had Flagstaff nearly surrounded. Though many structures were threatened, damage was minimal.

North of the Grand Canyon, it took 875 firefighters to contain a 53,000-acre blaze on the Kaibab Plateau. No injuries were reported, but 10 Grand Canyon hikers had to be evacuated by helicopter. "If they had come out of the canyon, they would have come out right in the fire," a Forest Service spokesperson told AP.

Not every part of the West is seeing smoke. In the Northwest and Northern Rockies, last winter's heavy snowpack has kept most fires down.

The burn total for the inland West is rapidly approaching 1 million acres, the annual average for the entire nation over the past five years. Under rainy skies, all 10 forests had re-opened by early July. "You can just breath a sigh of relief now that the monsoons are here," said Cathie Schmidlin of the Kaibab National Forest.

* Jared Farmer