Wildfire risk judged high

Wildfire risk judged high

31 March 2013

published by www.mydesert.com

USA — For the second year in a row, persistent drought has left the Coachella Valley and broad swaths of the United States vulnerable to unusually fierce wildfires, according to local and national fire and weather officials.

The desert has received less than 40 percent of its average rainfall over the past three years, and each dry year just feeds into the next, making a region that is already hot and dry just hotter and drier, National Weather Service meteorologist Cindy Palmer said.

“We’ve had a series of storms that have come through, but the precipitation is dry throughout almost the entire state. … Last year had similar conditions as well,” Palmer said. “When you get temperatures of 85-90 degrees, humidity that falls below 15 percent and gusty winds, there is a potential for some problems.”

Weather Service data shows that Palm Springs normally receives about 5.4 inches of rain between the beginning of June and the end of March. Instead, a monitoring station at the Palm Springs airport has recorded only about 2.2 inches during that same time period.

In some states, dry conditions have been compounded by an infestation of tree-killing bark beetles. They have threatened Riverside County for a decade, but have now moved into 46 million acres of the nation’s western forests, creating a tinderbox of dead wood larger than Missouri.

Together, these conditions could create a wildfire season as dangerous and costly as last year, when more than 9.3 million acres of land — an area larger than Missouri — were burned. Mega-fires from Oregon to New Mexico made headlines from Father’s Day to Halloween.

Last year was the third most-active wildfire season since 1960, according to the Forest Service.

“Our predictions for this incoming fire season are almost identical to where we were a year ago at this time,” said Tom Tidwell, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service, whose agency manages 193 million acres.

Tidwell said that spending cuts imposed by Congress and the White House will force his agency to hire about 500 fewer firefighters than the 10,000-10,500 it normally employs. He said the Forest Service will “mitigate the impact” by pre-positioning firefighters in vulnerable areas and moving them around more rapidly when outbreaks occur.

Fires are burning hotter, faster and for a larger portion of the year than a decade ago, a condition Tidwell attributes to warmer, drier weather. That creates drier vegetation and better fuel for fires. Warmer weather has extended wildfire seasons by about 60-70 days a year, Tidwell said.

Last year was the warmest on record for the continental USA, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“There is no question we are seeing these large fires become established more quickly and, at times, they are almost explosive,” he said.

Locally, city and county fire departments are most concerned about summer months, when extreme temperatures make the desert ripe for fires.

The fire department expects the wildfire threat to be normal through the end of April, but rising temperatures in May and June should create “significant fire potential,” said Jim Webb, deputy chief and fire marshal for the Palm Springs Fire Department.

The Riverside County Fire Department is also planning for the most intense fire conditions in a few months. County firefighters shift training to focus more heavily on wildfires in March, Battalion Chief Mike Smith said.

However, it’s a mistake to think that wildfires are only a threat during the summer, Smith said. Over the past decade, drought conditions have extended the wildfire season so it lasts almost all year, making the term “wildfire season” a misnomer, Smith said.

“It’s just that we get more fires — and more intense fires — as we move on to these later summer months,” Smith said.

As these volatile summer months approach, Coachella Valley residents can take steps to protect themselves.

Webb said anyone who lives on the outskirts of the city should clear or trim all the grass, shrubs and trees within a 300-yard radius of their house.

“It gives us — in the event there is a wildfire, and every season, it is likely — it gives us in the firefighter business a space to operate in. What we call ‘defensible space,’ ” Webb said.

The Riverside County Fire Department also offers an early warning notification system that could be used in the event of a catastrophic wildlife. The automated telephone system will alert members of impending danger, but the department only uses the system in dire situations, said spokeswoman Jodie Hagemann.

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