Image: Map of wildfire forecast
NIFC
The National Interagency Fire Center produced this map of summer fire potential.
msnbc.com
updated 5/6/2009 1:27:12 PM ET 2009-05-06T17:27:12

Swaths of four states — Arizona, California, New Mexico and Washington — are at greatest risk for wildfires this summer as conditions there are starting to worsen, the National Interagency Fire Center announced in its summer forecast.

A particular focus was on California, which had a rough season last year and where a fire was burning near Santa Barbara on Wednesday.

"Whether or not we see that potential develop into another severe fire season in California depends on ignitions,” Rick Ochoa, the center's weather program manager, said in a statement. "Last year we had widespread lightning storms move through that area and ignite multiple fires."

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday instructed state fire officials to mobilize more personnel and equipment for the next few months.

"Last summer when California was engulfed by 2,000 fires, California’s brave and hard working firefighters beat back every one of those fires, but it was not without great sacrifice and great cost,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement. "A third straight year of drought only heightens the danger we face this summer, and we need every firefighting tool on ready alert, so we can spring into action when disaster strikes."

The interagency center predicted in its seasonal report that "most of northern California and portions of the central coast and adjacent interior areas in southern California will see increasing significant fire potential during June through August."

Northern California, where nearly a million acres burned last summer, is still in a long-term drought and April rainfall remained below average. Both factors lead grasslands to peak early, creating more fuel for fires earlier in the season.

"These factors, along with early snow melt, are expected to result in an early onset to fire season in the northern half of the state," the fire center report said. "Fire restrictions may be enacted earlier than usual as well."

In southern California, the fire center said, land is drier than normal across the central coastal and adjacent interior areas, making it prime fuel for fires.

The state's drought could intensify through mid-summer, exacerbating insect infestations, which damage trees and make them more susceptible to fire, the report said.

Other areas cited as concerns:

  • North-central Washington faces above-normal potential for wildfires due to persistent drought.
  • The Southwest, from Texas to Arizona, can expect above-normal fire potential until early July, when seasonal rains should arrive.
  • South Florida should see dry conditions improve with seasonal rains by June. While also listed as an area of significant fire potential, south Florida hasn't seen the kind of worsening conditions that Arizona, California, New Mexico and Washington have.

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