updated 10/7/2005 7:56:38 AM ET 2005-10-07T11:56:38

Despite early fears of a catastrophic wildfire season in the West, the season now ending has been relatively mild, fire officials say.

But that shouldn’t shroud the fact that thick stands of stressed or diseased trees and the lingering effects of drought still pose dangers ahead.

While there has been some relief this year, most of the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest are still experiencing varying degrees of drought, or otherwise abnormally dry conditions, according to this week’s U.S. Drought Monitor.

And even one dry year can have an effect on fire danger, said Keith Wood, a fire information officer for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center in Colorado.

Fire officials urge preventive measures, such as managed burns and logging in overgrown forests to creating buffers, known as defensible spaces, around homes.

“Complacency is our worst enemy,” said Mike Apicello, a public affairs officer for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Season by the numbers
There were 53,539 wildfires nationwide through September — 79 percent of the average from 1995-2004, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center. Those fires burned on nearly 8.2 million acres, more acreage than a year ago and well above the average.

However, about 4.4 million of those acres were in Alaska, where large wildfires often are allowed to burn themselves out if they pose no threat. In California this month, wildfires have scorched tens of thousands of acres and threatened homes.

Much of the acreage in the lower 48 states came from range fires that burned in the Southwest and Great Basin, where a wet winter allowed grass and vegetation to flourish. Those fuels fed the large grass fires of late spring and summer.

Montana state forester Bob Harrington urged people to think ahead as the wildfire season ends. He estimates hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of acres in Montana alone are so overgrown they are at high risk for fire.

Defensible space urged for homes
But some environmentalists say logging isn’t always a good idea. Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said it’s impossible to “fireproof” forests. More emphasis should be placed defensible space, he said.

Jim Maxwell, a spokesman for the Rocky Mountain region of the U.S. Forest Service, said a tamer fire season can buy communities and homeowners time to take precautions.

“If you haven’t thinned the forest near your home and created defensible space, it may be too late, and you may wish you had,” he said.

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