Drought, policy changes may spark more huge Western fires

Thursday , May 31, 2012 - 1:17 PM

Russell Contreras

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.-- A massive wildfire in the New Mexico wilderness that already is the state's largest blaze ever has grown to nearly 300 square miles as it spreads in all directions, and experts say conditions are ripe this season for similar massive blazes across the West.

Persistent drought, climate change and shifts in land use and firefighting strategies mean western states likely will see giant fires that will require hundreds, if not thousands, of firefighters on-site.

"We've been in a long drought cycle for the last 20 years, and conditions now are great for these type of fires," said Steve Pyne, author of "Tending Fire. Coping with America's Wildland Fires" and a life science professor at Arizona State University. "Everything is in line."

Agencies in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and other western states are bracing for the worst, given the bleak forecast. Many counties have established emergency telephone and email notification systems to warn of wildfires, and most states have enlisted crews from nearby states to be ready when the big ones come.

"It's highly likely that these fires are going to get so big that states are going to need outside resources to fight them," said Jeremy Sullens, a wildland fire analyst at the National Interagency Fire Center.

According to the National Weather Service, a dry climate is expected to prolong drought conditions across the Great Basin and central Rockies during the fire season. Large portions of Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico will remain under severe drought conditions.

And it's unclear what type of relief will come from monsoon season, which starts in mid-July, since experts say it's difficult to predict what areas in the West will benefit, Sullens said.

A lack of moisture means fewer fuels to burn in some areas, but unburned vegetation elsewhere could pose a problem since states received no sustained snow or rain this winter and spring.



That's what happened in New Mexico's Gila Wilderness, where a lack of snow failed to push down grass, which worsened the fire danger, Sullens said.

Fire officials said Thursday the erratic Gila blaze grew overnight to more than 190,000 acres and is spreading in all directions. Fire information officer Iris Estes said more than 1,200 firefighters are at the massive blaze near the Arizona border.

"We're continuing with burnout operations and we've been helped with a slight rise in humidity and decreased winds," Estes said.

She said the fire is 5 percent contained.

The 2-week-old Gila forest fire is the largest wildfire burning in the country. Its size this week surpassed New Mexico's last record fire, a blaze last year that charred 156,593 acres and threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the nation's premier nuclear facility.

So far the Gila blaze has destroyed 12 cabins and a few small outbuildings.

Other reasons states in the West will see more massive fires this season is because, coupled with drought and dry climate, crews have experienced changes in firefighting strategies and agencies have changed some policies in fighting wildfires in isolated areas, Pyne said.

"In the last 20 years or so, agencies have generally been reluctant to put firefighters at risk in remote areas," he said. "It wasn't like that decades ago."

Instead, Pyne said agencies have focused attention on burnout operations until conditions are safe to begin containment.

Not that those practices and the larges fires are bad things, Pyne said. For example, he said the Gila Wilderness has been a target for controlled burns.

"So maybe," Pyne said, "this is how it's supposed to happen."

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