Dallas, TX, Apr. 11 (UPI) — State and federal officials are doing their best to prepare for the upcoming wildfire season as National Guard troops called on to help in the past in some states are off fighting a war.
National firefighting coordinators say they have adequate ground crews to handle fires this summer, but state officials in the Northwest are nervous because that region appears to be at the most at risk in the long-range forecasts.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer was so concerned in March about preparedness that he wrote National Guard leaders to request the early release of some of his troops on active duty to return for possible fire duty.
“Montana, like many other Western states, is potentially facing a fire season of historic magnitude,” he wrote in his March 7 letter. “February was the driest month recorded in state history. This comes as the latest blow to a state suffering a seven-year drought.”
His request for an early return of his troops was not granted, but the governor said he did get assurances of help in an emergency fire situation from other states.
Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, promised the bureau “will help augment your forces by expediting any requests for assistance from other states that you might make under your Emergency Management Agreement Compact.”
Blum said he promised a year ago to state guard commanders that even with the demands of the war they would have at least 50 percent of their National Guard soldiers and airmen available for natural disasters and homeland security. He said that commitment has been met in every state and territory.
Montana had 1,500 National Guard troops on active duty due to the Iraq war as of Monday, said Adam Pimley, a spokesman for the governor. About 1,700 are at home and 1,200 of them are ready for forest-firefighting duty.
Five years ago in one of Montana’s worst fire seasons the state used nearly 1,900 guard troops to battle wildfires.
Schweitzer is the only governor who has expressed similar concerns to the National Guard Bureau, according to a spokeswoman, but other states use the guard at times along with state and federal agencies and local firefighters.
At the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, where wildland firefighting is coordinated across the country, an official said they don’t anticipate any problems.
“It’s all going to depend on the fire season, but we have adequate firefighting forces,” said spokeswoman Rose Davis. “We have an agreement with the Department of Defense for two military battalions if we need them.”
Most of the frontline firefighting resources come from federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, in addition to state forestry departments, tribal governments and local fire departments.
“Between all the agencies and our state partners and our contract firefighters, we have plenty of ground fighting resources,” said Davis. “If we need more, we can contract more or use active-duty military. At this point we’re just going to have to see what happens.”
The fire risk appears highest in the Northwest because of record low snowpacks in the mountains of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and northwest Wyoming. Severe drought also lingers in Montana and other states in the West.
Winter storms brought heavy rain and snow in California, Colorado and the Southwest, but this sparked the growth of grass and brush in areas that will dry out soon and create new sources of fuel for wildfires in the coming months.
A fire broke out near Socorro, N.M., on Saturday in mostly grassland and brush, burning more than 1,000 acres. A property owner was using a grinder that kicked off a spark into nearby grass, setting a raging inferno that was 70-percent contained by Monday.
“We had really high winds, a couple of sparks from a grinder, and boom it was gone,” said Dan Ware, a spokesman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division.
The fire danger will be higher this summer in the grasslands of New Mexico than in the mountain forests because of the wet winter and spring. The new grass will be drying out from late April through late June, becoming tinder for new fires.
Ware said officials are worried that people will become complacent when they are enjoying the outdoors because of the improved moisture conditions in New Mexico.
“Subconsciously they won’t make as much effort to put out that camp fire as they would have in years past because the dryness was so evident around them,” he said.
In Florida, officials are also warning the public to be cautious because the state is entering the driest period of the year after a wet spring that kept the number of wildfires relatively low compared to most years.
Firefighters in Florida will also have to deal with wildfires fueled by thousands of dead trees uprooted and shattered by last year’s hurricanes.
“We could have severe wildfires for several years to come because of the massive amounts of woody debris in our forests and wildlands,” said state Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson.