California Wildfires May Signal a Difficult Season
Past Year's Heavy Rain and Snow Nurtured Vegetation That Became Summer Tinder

By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 24, 2005

LOS ANGELES, June 23 -- What could be the West's most dangerous wildfire season in years got off to a rapid and roaring start this week, as blazes consumed several homes and threatened hundreds of others across three states.

In Southern California's Morongo Valley, an isolated house fire sparked a blaze that burned more than 5,000 desert acres and destroyed at least six other houses. In a distant suburb of Phoenix, 150 people fled a 30,000-acre fire spawned by a thunderstorm, while several smaller lightning fires raced across southern Nevada.

Forest officials said the intensity of the fires is the ironic result of the record-breaking rain and snow that hit the region this past year. Though the moisture thwarted fires last fall and relieved drought conditions across the West, it also promoted the growth of fire-prone grasses and brush.

"They dry quickly, they burn fast and they burn hot," said Vinnie Picard, a spokesman with the U.S. Forest Service at Arizona's Tonto National Forest. "We knew we were in for a difficult season."

The Arizona crisis started Tuesday as a storm passed over the forest, sparking several small fires, two of which merged Wednesday into one large blaze near the Humboldt mountain range, 40 miles north of Phoenix, and advanced toward the community of Carefree. Maricopa County officials evacuated about 200 houses on Tuesday and 30 more on Thursday.

A larger fire on the Barry M. Goldwater Range near Yuma has consumed more than 50,000 acres but is not yet threatening residential areas.

Southern California was contending Thursday with three forest fires. The largest, triggered by a house fire whose origins are still unknown, blackened about 5,500 acres north of Palm Springs. Jim Wright, deputy director and chief of fire protection for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said firefighters were challenged by hot Mojave Desert breezes.

"They're battling high temperatures, 100-plus degrees, windy conditions and rugged desert terrain," he said. "They're making progress on it."

A second fire, in Riverside County near Hemet, had burned about 2,000 mountainous acres but was moving away from populated areas, while a third was burning in desert backcountry near the Nevada border.

At least 13 wildfires were burning across southern Nevada, charring more than 4,000 acres but posing little threat to residential areas.

Officials said this week's fires are probably a sign of a difficult season ahead. The winter's heavy rainfalls -- Los Angeles is expected to close the season just an inch shy of a 120-year-old record -- may have helped protect trees in higher elevations, but Wright predicted a delayed danger.

"All that's doing is pushing off the inevitable, because those fuels will dry out," he said. "We're going to have a later-year fire season -- busy-ness with grass fires now, and as the heavier fuels dry, we'll have some bigger ones."

Wright noted that grass fires -- fast-moving and unpredictable -- pose the most risks to firefighters. Meanwhile, Picard said the fires could take a particular harsh toll on deserts, where many of these grasses were only recently introduced.

"For an ecological system, it's very dangerous," he said. "Cactuses aren't adapted to fire -- they don't grow back. It's really changing the nature of our landscape."

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