Explosive Wildfire Season Predicted for U.S. West, South

Hope Hamashige
for National Geographic News
April 28, 2006

Wildfires have been raging intermittently since the beginning of the year in parts of the western United States, where the term "fire season" has lost all meaning.

In what is already by far the worst year for wildfires in Texas history, a million acres (405,000 hectares) burned in the Texas panhandle during one week in March, and 19 lives have been lost since January 1.

"We have never seen a year like this," said Marilyn Grossman, spokesperson for the Texas Forest Service.

"It has people really shaken, and unfortunately we are not out of the woods yet."

In terms of fire damage, 2006 already looks like a year for the record books. And official preparations for fire season—which usually begins around now in the Southwest—have been in effect in many places since winter.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 33,000 wildfires have been reported across the U.S., burning nearly 2.2 million acres (890,000 hectares), according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).

That is far higher than the five-year average of 27,150 fires burning 583,000 acres (236,000 hectares) by this time of year.

"We are off to a really big start," said NIFC spokesperson Rose Davis.

The combined forces of persistent drought and high heat are teaming up to create what could be one of the worst fire seasons on record.

NIFC has listed much of the country at above-average risk for wildfires, with the greatest danger zones in the West and South, stretching from Alaska to Florida.

Davis pointed out that while Texas and Oklahoma have so far experienced the most widespread damage, the entire South is a potential tinderbox.

And more than any other place, the Southwest is ripe for an extremely large and potentially destructive fire, she said.

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