The North American wildfire season has begun, with 23 fires burning already in the US. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) says risks are a little above normal in northern ID, western MT, south TX, and Puerto Rico, and generally normal in most parts of the country.
But that crystal ball has some flaws - every one of the current fires is in an area tabbed as normal or below-normal risk at the moment. And a 500-acre Wyoming fire burned with "extreme" behavior in mid-April 2005, according to local firefighters (April 19, 2005, Casper Star-Tribune). The extreme behavior occurred even though NIFC calls the risk in WY normal, and central WY is among the least hard-hit drought areas in the state (drought monitor).
Many communities and firefighters are concerned the extended drought affecting the Northwest and northern Rockies could contribute to a big fire season this summer. And if the rest of spring and summer are dry, the lush plant growth resulting from heavy precipitation this winter in much of the rest of the country could provide substantial fuel for fires.
Another concern was revitalized by the latest crash of one of the country's small, aging fleet of planes used to drop fire retardant, on April 20, 2005, in northern California. The ongoing response to this problem may limit the availability of this key firefighting tool ("New Tanker Crash Adds Fuel to Fire," Oakland Tribune, April 22, 2005, by Steve Geissinger, which continues a series begun in 2004; "Troubled Tankers," Oakland Tribune, April 20, 2005, by Steve Geissinger).
Northwest states are already lining up their National Guard troops to help with firefighting, though MT is having little luck retrieving large numbers of its Guard stationed in Iraq, and many of Oregon's helicopters are in Afghanistan, according to a Michelle Nijhuis article in the April 18, 2005, High Country News.
Acreage burned by an average 100,000 fires each year varies widely, adding to the difficulty of preparing for each season. The primary federal agencies that deal with wildfires are doing a better job, says the US Government Accountability Office in a Feb. 14, 2005, report.
But GAO concludes there still is no cohesive strategy identifying long-term options and funding for preventing and fighting wildfires. In earlier reports, GAO found there were serious problems caused by funding transfer processes (June 2, 2004), and that assessments of environmental effects of wildfires were weak or nonexistent (June 24, 2004). A good overview of further improvements needed in federal wildfire efforts is the just-released "Wildland Fire Management," GAO, April 26, 2005, by Robin M. Nazzaro, GAO-05-627T.
One federal effort likely to influence local fires this year is the Healthy Forests Initiative, which in 2005 is expected to fund fuels reduction projects covering about 400,000 acres nationwide. About 60% of this work is supposed to be near well-developed areas, dubbed the "wildland urban interface."
HFI raises many worries among environmental groups concerned that the program is just an excuse to log forests. But the program receives strong support from groups such as the Western Governors' Association and the American Forest Resource Council. Those two organizations are among many collaborating on a process targeting state and local government and forestry officials that is designed to increase local development of Community Wildfire Protection Plans. A briefing paper on this effort should be available in May 2005, says the US Forest Service's Heidi Valetkevitch, 202-205-0914.
Links to local actions already completed or underway in your state are available on the main HFI site.
Some of the local stories generated by all these activities will come from the business arena. One example, "Filling a Fire Niche," by Julie Poppen in the March 31, 2005, Rocky Mountain News.
Another issue affecting wildfires is vegetation kill and other changes caused by invasive species. The US Forest Service published its National Strategy and Implementation Plan for Invasive Species Management late in 2004. At least 850,000 acres nationwide could be affected by recommendations in this report.
An example of some of the great things you can do with wildfire issues is the award-winning 4-part feature package "Unnatural Disasters," in the San Bernadino Sun of June 2004.
For many other sources, begin with the July 9, 2003, TipSheet.