Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Firefighters in Southwest Brace for Summer of Dry Discontent

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Firefighters in Southwest Brace for Summer of Dry Discontent

Article excerpt

Barely pausing for breath, firefighters who contained the 100-square-mile blaze at Tonto National Forest east of here this weekend are preparing for a busy summer.

The Southwest deserts are experiencing some of the driest conditions this century in a land that averages only 7 inches of rain a year to begin with. Below-normal winter precipitation, combined with unseasonably hot spring temperatures and high winds, have turned the region into a virtual Molotov cocktail.

Already, more than 130 wildfires are raging in the United States, most of them in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and southern California, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, which coordinates firefighting efforts.

Those numbers are running two months ahead of normal for the typical firefighting season. It is the earliest that firefighters have been called to the summer lines since 1963.

But with no end in sight to the dry conditions, officials hope that residents exercise caution and common sense.

"We're up against mother nature and we're up against human nature," says Dolores Maese, spokeswoman for the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico. "It makes it kind of rough."

Sweep your roof

Officials are emphasizing fire-prevention measures, such as clearing 30-foot-wide fire breaks around homes in areas of forest vegetation, and sweeping roofs of pine needles and other fuels that could catch fire.

They also pin their hopes for relief on monsoons that usually begin rolling across the Southwest deserts in July. These storms pump moisture up from the Gulf of California, and can unleash torrential rains.

But even the forces of nature can frustrate the best plans of man, according to Stephen Pyne, a history professor at Arizona State University who has authored several books on fire and its impact on civilization.

The monsoons are accompanied by high winds, blowing dust and spectacular lightning, he says, making the desert Southwest "the lightning epicenter" for the US. …

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