Precipitation from the El Nino weather pattern could preclude an early wildfire season in the desert Southwest, but there is a greater potential for blazes in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes regions, National Interagency Fire Center officials report.

El Nino has been blamed for flooding, drought, tornadoes and any number of other weather disasters. But it ran true to form in the West over the winter."It's a typical El Nino weather pattern, putting a lot of moisture into the southern portion of the country. There are not many fire starts there because of that precipitation," said Lorraine Buck, assistant chief for external affairs at the Boise-based center, which coordinates fire suppression for the entire nation.

"In New Mexico and Arizona, we're getting close to monsoon season, so there would be even more rain there," she said.

On the other hand, sections of the Southwest are green from all the rain. Dry weather that cures the ample grass into tinder could set the scene for some extensive range fires.

Winter weather was fairly dry in Montana, northern Idaho, Washington and the Great Lakes area.

"There is more potential for a mild drought there this summer," Buck said. "If that is followed by lightning, thunderstorm activity, there's a real possibility for wildfires."

Typically, the burning season kicks off in the Southeast. By last Friday, 326 blazes were reported in that region, burning only about 3,600 acres, Buck said.

Last year, the United States experienced 66,000 fires which torched 2.8 million acres. That is an average season overall, but 1 million of those acres were consumed by Alaska blazes which ran through the spring and summer.

In the last decade, 1996 was the most severe season. More than 6 million acres were charred by 96,000 fires nationwide.

The National Interagency Fire Center oversees the shipment of equipment, aircraft, food and crews to all 50 states.

"We're kind of like a chess master, moving chess pieces around the board," Buck said. "When the fire level reaches a point that the regions get overloaded, that's when they call NIFC."

Last year, it dispatched air retardant tankers to 69 fires and helicopters to 125, many of them large fires affecting thousands of acres. It filled the bill for smokejumper crews 21 times.

The center shifted around the equivalent of 102 20-person crews plus overhead last year. That compares with filling requests for 1,648 crews in 1994, also a heavy fire year.

Last year, "Type 1" overhead teams were sent to project fires only seven times, Buck said. That compares with 69 instances in 1994.