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West, South brace for fierce fire season

Controlled fires are burning  in Texas and other parts of the south, and will soon occur in the mountains and vast forests of the West in preparation for what is expected to be an "active wildfire season." NBC News Al Henkel reports from a controlled fire in Wise County, Texas.
Firefighters are preparing for a nasty fire season likely to feature scenes like this one from a July 18, 2004, blaze near Santa Clarita, Calif.
Firefighters are preparing for a nasty fire season likely to feature scenes like this one from a July 18, 2004, blaze near Santa Clarita, Calif. Gene Blevins / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

“Fire on the ground!” came the call over the radio at LBJ National Grasslands. A controlled burn had already started on a warm, breezy day in Wise County, North Texas.

Firefighters walked through acres of waist-high grassland, light timber, and scrub brush with drip torches that painted a flaming ribbon through the grass.

This fire would reduce fuel and, hopefully, prevent a wildfire during the blistering Texas summer in a few months.

Even after soaking rains a few days before the burn, the grass burned fast and hot, prompting a warning from the burn boss, Shane Beavers, to “take it slow and easy.”

“If we clean this up today, maybe, just maybe, it won’t blow up on us later this year,” said Beavers while standing in front of a ravine filled with smoke and flames.

Preparing for an ‘active wildfire season’
“These planned burning operations reduce the competition from brush species on grasses and wildflowers, and stimulate grasses,” said Jim Crooks, district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service. “This improves range conditions and areas for wildlife habitat.” 

Since January, controlled burns have been set in Texas and other parts of the South, and will soon get under way in the mountains and vast forests of the West.

Forest managers say these burns are the only way to guard against massive damage from the fires that will inevitably start this summer: by clearing out dead and downed trees that allow small fires to become large.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says that the northwestern United States should brace for an “active wildfire season” this year.

Washington, Idaho and Montana are bone-dry.

Western governors making moves already
Parts of Idaho are in the fifth year of drought, and have less than 50 percent of average snow pack. Washington has only 16 percent of its average snow pack, and most of Montana is in the seventh straight year of drought.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer calls his state “a powder keg” and predicts huge wildfires this summer. “Somebody’s going to have a blowup. Is it northern Idaho, is it eastern Washington, or is it Montana? Are we all going to burn at the same rate, or is one of us going to have a bigger blowup?” asked the governor.

Schweitzer predicts a repeat of the 1988 season, which burned 2.2 million acres in the northern Rockies, including almost 800,000 acres in Yellowstone National Park.

The governor has even asked the Pentagon to bring home some Montana National Guardsmen from Iraq, so they can help fight fires this summer.

Separate fund backed
Fears of potentially disastrous wildfires this summer have driven Colorado Gov. Bill Owen and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to ask Congress to maintain a separate fund that could be quickly tapped if the main source of federal money to fight fires runs out.

A separate $500 million account was created last year for the same purpose and most of the money remains, but it will be used for other purposes if it is not rolled over for the special account.

President Bush has already earmarked $676 million to fight wildfires during this next fiscal year. But that amount is based on a 10-year average of fire costs, and the governors fear that is far too low given the severe droughts in much of the West.

Back in Texas, Beavers and his crew of firefighters pushed to finish their burn before a cold front and its expected rains moved through.

An ember, pushed by the afternoon winds, drifted over a fence onto private land. Forest Service engines immediately converged on the spot to make sure the controlled burn stayed just that: in control.