Anticipated summer weather and five years of drought in Western states have prompted forest services to plan for an active wildfire season.
"We plan to be at the level of preparedness we were in 1990 - plus," said John Chambers, director of aviation and fire management for the Forest Service's intermountain region. "We'll probably be in the sixth year of a drought" that could be more intense than last year, resulting in a greater potential for a severe fire season this year, he said.Nationally, about 700 20-member firefighting crews are being trained for this season compared with 600 crews in 1990.
About 50 additional smoke jumpers also are being trained for the coming season. In 1990, the Forest Service had 300 smoke jumpers and the Bureau of Land Management contributed another 100 jumpers to the firefighting pool, which can be deployed anywhere in the nation.
Seven medium helicopters were under exclusive use contract for federal firefighting service in 1990 compared with nine for the coming season.
The Forest Service traditionally enlists the service of military firefighters and anticipates having about 100 military crews. The crews normally come from active-duty military components, but federal officials thought they might be calling on reserve-component troops this year because of the gulf war. The winding-down of Operation Desert Storm makes it likely the traditional channels for using military firefighters will be available, Chambers said.
In Utah, National Guard crews often are called into service for firefighting efforts on state lands, said State Forester Richard Klason. The crews typically provide transportation and heavy equipment work, but more than 700 Guard engineers remain in Germany and it is not known when they will return.
Additional firefighting strength to protect federal land is expected at the local and district level, but it is too early in the season to quantify those increases, Chambers said.
The anticipated federal budget for 1991 firefighting needs won't be complete until sometime in April. "Congress has said `go ahead and use your emergency funds to get ready,' " he said.
Since about 1987, Congress has funded firefighting efforts at higher levels because of the realization that it costs less to protect the land than it does to clean it up, Chambers said. That posture predated the 1988 firestorm at Yellowstone National Park. "Yellowstone reaffirmed what might be coming," he said.
Training for the new smoke jumpers also is expected to begin in April. Other seasonal crews will begin their training in May - possibly in June in states where the climate usually gives a later start to the summer fire season.
"In Southern states, they're training now because they're already in the fire season."