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Wildfire Season Starts Early in American Southwest - 2002-04-06

The fire season is starting early across parts of the American southwest. Blazes have already blackened parts of Arizona and New Mexico, and some cities in northern Arizona are beginning to ask for voluntary restrictions on water use, to ensure there's enough left for fighting fires. After the driest-ever winter in Arizona, expectations are for things to get worse.

Eric Rasmussen is actually hoping for a busy fire season to make up for his unprofitable winter. He had planned to work at a local ski area. But that didn't quite pan out. "I worked a day and a half at the Snowbowl resort this year and I wasn't that busy," he says.

That's because northern Arizona only received about a third of its usual snowfall this winter, and most of that fell before January 1. But the dry winter means Eric Rasmussen is likely to become real busy, real soon. His summer job is fighting fires with the U.S. Forest Service. He reported for work in late March, a month ahead of schedule. "We're going to start early. Just making sure we're in the physical shape to work hard," he says.

It isn't just the firefighters who are getting ready, though. The forests themselves need to be worked into shape. In a Flagstaff city park, within view of tennis courts and softball fields, crews are taking down ponderosa pine trees.

"It's not unusual for us to remove a couple [hundred], 300 trees to the acre. It's a lot of trees," says Paul Summerfelt of the Flagstaff fire department, who is trying to rob the fire of fuel before it starts. A century of suppressing wildfire has left western forests like this one which extends into a city - dense and overgrown, just primed for sparking the kinds of massive wildfires that tore through the West two summers ago.

Mr. Summerfelt's prime concern is what is known as the urban-wildland interface, the area where forest meets residential community. "We look at it from a perspective of it's not a question of if we have a fire or fires, it's when we have those fires. Immediately around us, what we can see from this point, we'll have 300 or 400 a year," he says. "Any one of those under today's conditions can be the one we're working to prevent."

Normally, these crews would also spend part of April conducting prescribed burns, to clear out downed and dead trees and dry underbrush. But forest managers are afraid a controlled fire could get out of hand, and have put a halt to them for the time being.

Even without the unusually dry conditions, and the growing number of homes built in wooded areas, fighting fires in the west is complicated. That's because the region is a patchwork of private, state-owned, and federal lands each with specific rules about fire-fighting.

So some people, such as Colorado Congressman Scott McInnis, are calling for the federal government to establish a National Fire Czar to coordinate fire-fighting efforts among many different agencies. "The fact is someone has to call up and say, 'is this park service land, is this forest service land, is this BLM land, are we over in this, and which agency's got that?' And there's a lot of valuable time and resources that are not properly disbursed or properly utilized because of this lack of coordination," he says.

While happy for any help the government can provide, Paul Summerfelt says all the money and coordination in the world won't put an end to wildfires. "The weather may change and we may get a good snow, or rains that temper the fire season this year. But that's not changing the long-term outlook of what we have in front of us, which will mean next fall, next spring, five years from now. At some point, nature's going to re-set the clock," he says.

And with fires already charring parts of Arizona and New Mexico this spring, it's evident the hands of that clock are already turning back, and nature is reasserting itself in the forests of America's Southwest.