- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 23, 2004

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) — Months ago, national fire managers predicted the 2004 wildfire season would be a bad one in the West. Now, they’re changing their forecast: It’s going to be worse.

With unseasonably warm temperatures in March and April, the potential loss of heavy air tankers for safety reasons and a years-long drought continuing, Western states and the federal government are facing the possibility of another devastating fire season.

“Things are much worse than they were in February,” said Rick Ochoa, national fire weather program manager for the Bureau of Land Management.

Years of drought have left states across the West vulnerable to extreme fire conditions. The greatest threat lies in the Pacific Northwest, the Northern Rockies of Idaho and Montana, and the Southwest, including Southern California, where conditions are the driest.

The Northwest had escaped the early dire predictions, thanks to snow blanketing the Cascades. But it now faces dangerous conditions after a warm spring that melted the snowpack a month earlier than usual.

In Washington, the state Department of Natural Resources already has fought 70 small fires this year, up from the usual 20, and forests are as dry as they typically are in late July or early August.

And snowpack in the Cascades in Oregon has fallen to well below average.

“It really is huge,” said Paul Werth, fire weather program manager for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland. “There’s really the potential for a large number of huge fires — long-duration fires.”

Firefighters in the small, heavily forested community of LaPine, Ore., where a 21,000-acre fire burned to the edge of town last year, already are preparing for a long summer. They’ve put out four small fires so far this year, and the conditions aren’t good, Fire Chief Jim Court said.

“We need to prepare ourselves for an extreme fire season — as bad as last year or worse,” Chief Court said.

Predictions for the Southwest already were bad, and low humidity and hot, dry winds in recent weeks have added to the danger. Early fires already are scorching Southern California, where fire danger usually is highest in the fall when the Santa Ana winds blow through. Last year, raging wildfires in Southern California killed more than 20 people.

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