Ellis Neel  /  Alamogordo Daily News
Columns of smoke rise to more than 15,000 feet from Peppin Canyon during the Peppin Fire, Monday, in Capitan, N.M.
updated 5/26/2004 3:23:41 PM ET 2004-05-26T19:23:41

As a wildfire exploded in size in rural south-central New Mexico, the governor blasted the federal government for not allowing heavy air tankers to battle the flames.

After the blaze in Lincoln National Forest grew to more than 23,000 acres, Gov. Bill Richardson renewed his call for the Bush administration to allow the tankers to be used to drop fire retardant. The planes were grounded because of safety concerns after two broke up in flight during the 2002 fire season.

More than 300 firefighters spent Tuesday building fire lines around the forest fire in the Capitan Mountains. A dozen cabins and several outbuildings — mostly summer homes — have been destroyed.

“I was shocked to be told this fire could have been held to a single acre if the heavy air tankers had been available at the beginning,” Richardson said. “The administration has pulled the safety net out from under states and local communities threatened by wildfire.”

Sen. Pete Domenici, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that oversees the U.S. Forest Service, said agency officials have assured him that additional equipment will be available for the fire, including military C-130 air tankers.

“The Forest Service is imminently aware of the very dangerous situation existing in Lincoln County,” the senator said. “I have stressed to them the dire need for the slurry tankers to fight these fires.”

However, officials with the regional Forest Service office and the Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque said they were unaware of the Forest Service preparing C-130s for work in New Mexico.

FEMA pledges assistance
The Federal Emergency Management Agency promised its help Tuesday, saying the agency would cover up to 75 percent of the cost of fighting the wildfire. Richardson had declared a state of emergency Monday.

“It’s a wind-driven fire in very rough, dry terrain,” fire information officer Beth Wilson said Tuesday. “It’s cool, the humidity is up and we had some cloud cover all day.”

A second blaze in New Mexico burned 5,100 acres in the Gallinas Mountains, some 50 miles northwest. The fire, spread from a small abandoned campfire, was expected to be contained by Thursday evening, officials said.

'Much worse' than in February
The fires have reinforced fears that the 2004 fire season will be worse than predicted just a few months ago.

New Mexico and other Western states are facing the possibility of another devastating fire season due to unseasonably warm temperatures in March and April, the potential loss of heavy air tankers for safety reasons and a years-long drought.

“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 following a warm spring that melted the snowpack a month earlier than usual.

In Washington state, 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. 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.”

In Oregon, 'we need to prepare'
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.

“Typically, the light fuels — short grasses and brush — will go up easily,” Court said. But the “thousand-hour” fuels, such as 6-to-8-inch logs and dead growth, also ignited, leading the district and state to suspend all burning several weeks ahead of schedule.

“We need to prepare ourselves for an extreme fire season — as bad as last year or worse,” 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 Santa Ana winds blow through. Last year, raging wildfires in Southern California killed more than 20 people.

Wildfires early this month blackened thousands of acres across Southern California and destroyed 28 homes.

The entire state of Arizona and at least the western half of New Mexico are facing above-normal and even critical fire danger, according to Chuck Maxwell, fire meteorologist for the Southwest Coordination Center that serves Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas.

Arizona ahead of last year
Already, the number of acres burned in central Arizona is more than double the number burned last year at this point in the season.

“We have triple-digit temperatures, double-digit wind speeds, single-digit humidity — not a very good recipe for a fire season,” said Kirk Rowdabaugh, deputy state forester for Arizona.

The possible loss of 33 large air tankers won’t help. The U.S. Forest Service grounded the tankers May 10 amid safety concerns after two planes broke up in midair in 2002, killing five people. The tankers can drop up to 3,000 gallons of fire-retardant on forest fires.

“Those air tankers were critical for initial attack. They buy time for your fire crews,” said Dan Ware, spokesman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division.

To prepare for the loss, New Mexico has repositioned crews and equipment around the state so they can respond to fires faster. The state also reached an agreement with the National Guard to keep two helicopters on standby, Ware said.

‘Be prepared or get prepared’
In Arizona, fire officials plan to request $1.5 million from the governor to add more firefighters in rural and volunteer fire departments, as well as bulldozers for at-risk regions to dig fire lines in a hurry.

Even before the announcement the tankers would be grounded, the state had hired four private tankers to boost firefighting efforts.

“If I’d seen it coming, I’d have hired 20 of them,” Rowdabaugh said. “We’re putting more emphasis on bulldozers, but there are environmental consequences. It’s not something we’d like to do, but in the absence of the heavy air tankers, it’s something we may have to do.”

Fire officials across the West are said to be working harder to prepare residents for the worst.

“Be prepared or get prepared,” said Court, the Oregon fire chief. “We’re already out there telling people to develop a fuel break around their home. Make sure you’re ready in case fire comes to you — not if, but when.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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