Better weather, ready personnel, and a more awarepublic soften the toll in the lower 48 states.
LOS ANGELES – As this summer began, wildfireconcerns across most of the American West were so strong that many communitiesimmediately went on high alert about everything from public ashtrays to picnicgrills to sparklers for the Fourth of July. After drought, bark beetledevastation, and memories of catastrophic wildfires in Arizona and Californiathe past four years – and with predictions of hot, dry weather ahead – the wordwas out: Be ready for the worst.
Three months later, with the driest, hottest seasonbehind most of the states, the same officials are breathing a sigh of relief. InAlaska, record fires have destroyed 6.5 million acres of forest – roughly thesize of Vermont – but the affected area in the lower 48 states has been abouthalf of the average over the past decade.
The same officials hasten to add that the period ofhighest danger is still ahead for southern California, where last October’sfires were the most devastating in state history. But overall, fire destructionhas been dramatically reduced, they say, because of two main factors: fewerlightning storms and the combination of ready personnel and a more aware public.
While it’s difficult to predict the former, the latteris worthy of self-congratulations, they say.
“We are much better at responding to fires in thefirst 24 hours with better training, equipment, and personnel than just threeyears ago,” says Randy Eardley, spokesman for the National Interagency FireCenter, in Boise, Idaho.
Beyond the enhanced capabilities of rural firedepartments to isolate and contain fires before they spread, Mr. Eardley saysnormal citizens are doing a better job of avoiding the kind of actions that oncedispleased Smokey Bear – leaving fires unattended, tossing matches andcigarettes, and kicking glowing tinder into dry brush.
“The public has finally gotten more educated aboutbeing more careful when they are out recreating and camping,” says Eardley.He says there is also a more watchful environment for catching the mistakes ofothers, as well as identifying arsonists.
On the heels of the wildfires that made headlines forweeks in nearly 20 locations in southern California last year, government pursestrings have loosened for crucial funding of equipment and personnel.
“We had been saying for years that we needed fourfiremen for each engine rather than three because that allows us to suppressthese big fires before they get going,” says Dick Hayes, deputy chief forthe California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “After lastyear’s fires in this state, the state has finally said ‘yes’ and dipped intofire emergency funds. That has made a lot of difference.”
Whatever combination of better weather andpreparedness, statistics so far this year tell the result. The tally of 59,180fires to date is below the 10-year average of 65,881 by this month, and acreageburned (subtracting Alaska) is 1,323, 655 acres – compared with the 10-yearaverage of 3,326,000, according to Eardley.
Alaska, however, does tell a different story. Extremelydry weather and unusual amounts of overdry fuel ignited the second-mostdevastating fires in history. But the state is so big, officials point out(about 125 million forested acres), that the fires tend be put in a differentperspective – and handled differently.
“Because there are so few roads, the suppressioncosts are a lot more expensive than letting the fires burn,” says JudyPlocher, intelligence dispatcher for the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center.For the entire state, four Hotshot crews of 20 people, 66 smoke jumpers, and 20fire-suppression specialists fought fires so large that smoke debris waftedacross Colorado to Houston.
“Funding is always a frustration, but there isnothing we can do about it,” says Ms. Plocher, reflecting a comment made byother cash-strapped states in recent years. “It’s always a terrible thingwhen you lose this much land,” she says. “But with lightning to blame,there is no one to fault. We are just thanking God that we have had no seriousinjuries and no fatalities. That is major progress over previous years.”
The lightning storms that are responsible for 60percent of forest fire damage in the lower 48 states – mainly because they startin rural areas away from concentrations of firefighters – have been way downthis year.
Experts say no predictable scientific cause isresponsible – just the vagaries of which storms passed through which areas, aswell as what the lightning struck and how dry it was.
But experts do know that southern California’sultra-hot, ultra-dry Santa Ana winds come in October and November, and thusthey’re hesitant to pronounce the fire danger for 2004 over.
“When the Santa Anas come to southern California,all bets are off,” says Mr. Hayes. “Last year the state did not evenhave bad fire conditions prior to their arrival … and when they came, theychanged the whole picture in an instant.”