Raging wildfires straining nation's firefighting resources

DENVER - Expecting no relief for months in the West's brutal and unrelenting fire season, federal officials have called out the military to help contain blazes that are charring tens of thousands of acres from Washington to Texas.

At least four dozen fires burned across parts of 10 Western states on Wednesday, racing through timber, grass and brush.

Firefighters on Wednesday were battling two wildland fires in Nevada that combined have consumed about 10,000 acres.

The Wall Canyon fire in central Nevada has burned about 7,200 acres and was 55 percent contained. It broke out Saturday 60 miles north of Tonopah. Firefighting efforts have been hampered by steep, rugged terrain but officials hoped to have the flames completed surrounded with a fire break sometime today.

The Cottonwood fire, about 30 miles southeast of Lovelock, started on Tuesday in the Stillwater Range and was burning in heavy pinion and juniper. A dispatcher at the Sierra Front Wildland Fire Cooperators in Minden said the size was estimated at somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 acres.

About half of the smaller fires in the West had no crews on hand at all. In some cases, calls for help with wildfires have been delayed or unfilled for days because resources have been devoted to major fires.

''Here we are approaching the end of July and already resources are thin,'' said Amy Teegarden, a Forest Service spokeswoman in Helena, Mont. ''We're just now getting into what is normally the busy fire season.''

The wildfire season, which began when a prescribed brush-clearing fire near Los Alamos, N.M., raged out of control and destroyed more than 200 homes in May, has become the worst since 1996. The long-range forecast calls for much more hot, dry weather before the season ends, typically with the autumn's first snowfall.

Elite hot-shot firefighting crews, air tankers and helicopters are in big demand. Federal authorities have asked Canada to send firefighting planes; they've also asked Montana Gov. Marc Racicot to encourage businesses and state agencies to let employees volunteer for fire duty.

''There's more to do than can be done, then when something like two large fires hit you, it gets worse,'' said Joe Hartman, a fire management team commander on the blaze that has charred 23,000 acres of Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado.

In hopes of gaining ground on the fires, Army soldiers will attend crash courses in firefighting techniques organized by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Center spokeswoman Lorraine Buck said the soldiers should be ready to join fire lines next week.

The last time the fire center mobilized military units was in the summer of 1996, using 1,160 soldiers. Fires that year had burned 3 million acres by July 25; so far this year, fires have burned 2.6 million acres. Buck did not know how many soldiers would end up on lines.

The fire in the Mesa Verde National Park, the nation's largest archaeological preserve, was 25 percent contained Wednesday. Among the other large fires in the West are a pair of wildfires totaling 18,000 acres near Helena, Mont., that have forced dozens of families from their homes; and a 9,500-acre lightning-sparked fire in northeastern Washington state that has charred more than 30 structures.

Buck, of the fire center in Idaho, said another setback is that summer monsoons have not hit Arizona and New Mexico, so the fire danger remains high. That has strained resources there because firefighters are being called to help other states.

''We'll get skeleton thin - just a bare bones minimum - but we'll reach a threshold where we'll say, 'Sorry, we have to keep these folks here,''' said Gary Benavidez, fire management officer for the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico, where about a dozen lightning-ignited fires were burning Wednesday.

Overall, about 5,600 federally financed firefighters are in the field - in addition to those from state and local agencies.

In Idaho, Gail Baer of the Forest Service said this is the first year she has seen firefighting crews recruited from as far away as Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Georgia to help with her state's blazes.

''That's why we have a shortage, because everybody is busy on a fire,'' said Vi Hillman of the Bureau of Land Management in Utah. ''We are stretched pretty thin.''


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