HEATING UP: Tahoe-Truckee heads into what has become an already volatile fire season for California | SierraSun.com

HEATING UP: Tahoe-Truckee heads into what has become an already volatile fire season for California

AP Photo/Dan SteinbergFirefighters confer as they protect homes from a wind driven brush fire in the foothills of Sierra Madre, Calif. on Monday, April 28, 2008. A flare up early Monday morning caused the fire to push towards and threaten numerous homes in the town of Sierra Madre.

Wildfires are already burning in California and throughout the West and below average perception in Tahoe-Truckee for April, the region’s fire season could be a busy one, fire officials said.

“The latest that I’ve heard is that we do again anticipate an active fire season,” said North Tahoe Fire Protection Chief Duane Whitelaw. “It will start in the southern part of the state and work its way north as the fuels dry out.”

Firefighters in Southern California continue to battle the three-day-old Sierra Madre blaze that has burned at least 490 acres and has forced approximately 1,000 people from their homes in and near Santa Anita Canyon in the foothill suburb northeast of Los Angeles, according to the Associated Press.

And in San Diego County, about 100 acres burned Sunday in brush about 15 miles north of downtown San Diego.

Meanwhile, closer to home in Reno on Sunday, a fire torched about 18 acres of a 22-acre park along the Truckee River.

Whitelaw said even though the Tahoe winter seemed like a wet one, it is shaping up to be normal or a little below.

Precipitation numbers posted on the state’s water resources board Web site reflect Whitelaw’s observations, with the snowpack at 94 percent of average for the Northern Sierra and 78 percent of average statewide.

Precipitation totals for the month of April are below average, according to Randall Osterhuber, a researcher with the Central Sierra Snow lab on Donner Summit, and could bring the averages down further.

Although officials at the U.S. Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit do not expect a particularly dry year, spokesman Rex Norman said they will be entering this year’s fire season with the same number of personnel and equipment as last year, including an extra aircraft. The management unit is counting on a firefighting helicopter being stationed at the Truckee airport, as well as support from three other helicopters based in Minden Nev., Stead Nev. and one in El Dorado County, Norman said.

That means four helicopters will h ave an average response time of 20 to wildfires in the Basin, Norman said. Although helicopters are important to firefighting efforts, he explained they are dependent on weather conditions.

Last June’s Angora Fire was accompanied by 40-mile-per-hour winds, which would have grounded a helicopter effort, he said.

Fire prevention is the key point Chief Whitelaw wants property owners think about.

“The focus needs to be for homeowners to get their defensible space work done as soon as possible,” he said, explaining that the local fire district is doubling its chipping effort this year. The effort, he said is being funded by a recent tax assessment.

Across the West early season fires have officials predicting a busy fire season as well.

Wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico and last week’s fires in eastern Colorado mean another busy firefighting season is likely in store, said U.S. Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell, whose agency is grappling with bigger, more expensive fires while budgets stay flat.

Kimbell, in an interview with The Associated Press, said she hopes the above-average snowpack in the Rockies and Northwest will stick around to help cut the fire danger that has plagued the region in recent years.

But the wetter winter hasn’t stopped blazes from erupting this spring.

“These fires in New Mexico and Arizona and Colorado ” in April ” would indicate that we’ll be very busy this summer,” said Kimbell.

A 4,600-acre fire was burning last week in New Mexico’s Manzano Mountains. Also a fire scorched roughly 5,000 acres along the Arizona-Mexico border earlier in the week.

In Colorado, where the mountain snowpack is deeper than it’s been in more than a decade, three fires burned a total of nearly 29 square miles. One of the wildfires was in the mountains.

Adding to the costs is expansion of homes into forested areas because protecting structures can be expensive, said Rick Cables, Rocky Mountain regional forester for the Forest Service.

Nearly half the agency’s roughly $4 billion budget is spent on fires, including suppression and decreasing wildfire risk by reducing vegetation.

“Our budgets have been relatively flat over the last six, seven, eight years and larger percentages of that total are being spent on fire and fire suppression,” Kimbell said.

The Forest Service spent almost $1.4 billion on fighting fires last year.

“The Associated Press contributed to this report

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