Wildfire outlook: Worst yet to come in the West | SierraSun.com

Wildfire outlook: Worst yet to come in the West

Scott Sonner
Associated Press Writer

RENO, Nev. (AP) ” With federal firefighting preparedness at its highest level and wildfires burning nearly 2,000 square miles across the West, fire managers say they are most concerned about the weeks ahead given the extremely dry conditions and forecasts for more lightning.

“We think the most difficult challenge is yet ahead,” said Henri Bosson, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s deputy director for operations.

“We are seeing dry conditions and we’re worried about what is going to happen over the next few weeks,” he told reporters at the BLM’s state headquarters in Reno before beginning an aerial tour that took him over some of the region’s largest fires in north-central Nevada late Friday. He planned to continue the tour Saturday.

As of late Friday, more than 20,000 firefighters were fighting fires burning an estimated 1.25 million acres (1,950 square miles) in 11 different states, Bosson said.

About one-fourth of the acreage ” an estimated 450 square miles ” was burning in Nevada, where 2,400 firefighters were staffing fire lines.

“In terms of a normal fire season, 2007 is busy but frankly it’s not as busy as it was last summer,” Bosson said.

For the year so far, 53,000 fires have burned approximately 3.4 million acres nationally ” one Utah fire alone more than 300,000 acres ” compared to 4.4 million acres that had burned at this time a year ago, he said.

“So it is not unusual in that respect, but the conditions we are seeing on the ground are (unusual). We are seeing continued drying. We’re seeing heavy fuels in the higher country ” a lot of grass and dry brush in the lower country,” Bosson said.

“And we expect that we are going to be seeing a lot more lightning over the next few weeks so we are very, very concerned about the situation. … We are just now entering what would now be considered the traditional fire season.”

The Humboldt-Toiyable National Forest, spread over 5.5 million acres of Nevada and about 1 million acres of the Sierra in eastern California, has lost 57,000 acres of timber and rangeland to 75 fires so far this year, Forest Service officials aid.

That doesn’t include the 3,100-acre fire that destroyed 254 homes in the agency’s Lake Tahoe basin management unit last month.

“We are experiencing some of the driest, most extreme fire conditions we have seen in several years,” said Jerry Ingersoll, deputy forest supervisor of the Humboldt-Toiyable.

Three of the federal Type I fire priority teams currently are operating in Nevada, two in Elko County and one near Winnemucca. Traditionally, it’s been fairly rare for so many of the largest, highest priority teams to be operating in the same state, officials said.

“It’s getting to be more common than I’d like to see. The same thing happened last year in Elko County,” said Rex McKnight, BLM’s Nevada state fire management officer.

A federal area command unit also has been called in to Nevada to coordinate the different fire teams, the only state currently with such a team in place, officials said.

“We’re receiving excellent support,” Ingersoll added.

“Fuel conditions this year are as extreme as they’ve been in years,” McKnight said. “In Reno, we’ve had a fire season really since February a year ago. We’ve had a fire in this area every month of the year, and a large fire at that,” he said.

“The prognosis for the next six weeks is that we will continue on the path we are on now. so it is important that we bring in a lot of initial attack, lot of firefighters, engines, aircraft, all we can keep in the state to manage the emerging fires that are probably going to come at us.”

In Nevada, more than 383,000 acres have burned compared to 291,000 at this point a year ago. Last year, a total of 1.3 million acres burned in the 2006 fire season, about 1 million of that in Elko County alone.

Wenker said federal officials outside Nevada have responded to the state’s plea for more resources.