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Drought is fuel for wildfires in West

Officials fear worst if dry weather persists

SEDONA, Ariz. -- A lingering drought has created ideal wildfire conditions across much of the West and Southwest this summer, alarming forestry officials, who already are dealing with an unusually high number of fires.

Nationwide as of the weekend, officials have reported more than 54,000 fires charring more than 3.2 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Both figures were the highest in at least a decade for this point in the year. The 10-year average for the same period was 39,000 fires burning about 1 million acres.

So far, none of the fires has spun out of control, but scientists and forestry officials warned that exceptionally light rains and low humidity in many states have left dry, dead branches and grasses that could ignite like a tinderbox.

``Basically, you have had low precipitation since the late 1990s, and now, a winter in which we got close to no precipitation" in the Southwest, said Chuck Maxwell, a meteorologist with the Department of the Interior who months ago predicted a severe fire season. ``The fuel moisture levels are very low. The humidity is very low. There are lots of places now that are as dry as we have ever seen them."

One such place is the scenic red-rock country around the resort town of Sedona, about 90 miles north of Phoenix.

Firefighters spent most of last week battling a blaze that threatened to spill down the walls of Oak Creek Canyon, north of town. About 30 businesses and 430 residences -- from trailers to resorts and million-dollar estates -- were evacuated last week.

That fire, which covered about 4,200 acres, was 35 percent contained early yesterday, fire officials said. Though an evacuation order was lifted for some residents of Oak Creek Canyon on Saturday, the blaze still threatened homes in the canyon's southern end, where crews focused on finishing a protection line.

Overnight efforts to widen the lines protecting the homes went as planned, said David Eaker, a spokesman for the team fighting the fire. Authorities said it will be about two days before the remaining evacuees can return home.

The area sweltered in 100-degree heat all week, which made it tougher to stop the fire.

Firefighter Nat Mayhall of Chino Valley said he had been skeptical of predictions that this would be an abnormal fire year. But after four consecutive weeks of battling wildfires, he had changed his mind. ``It's going to be bad," said Mayhall, 37.

Wildfire season typically peaks in late summer and early fall, and some fire specialists cautioned against drawing dire conclusions from a rash of fires during the first half of the year.

If you get some rain in the right places, it could merely be a bad fire year, instead of a historic one," said Dan Binkley, director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University.

Still, the wildfire activity reached a high point last week. Over the weekend, there were at least 23 large fires burning more than 275,000 acres in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming.

Colorado Governor Bill Owens banned fireworks on state-owned land, while Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano declared a state of emergency and added telephone lines to spread information on fire conditions.

In Alaska, a fire near Nenana, an Athabascan native village about 60 miles from Fairbanks, had burned more than 80,000 acres of black spruce, grass, and tundra, and was threatening homes and cabins.

In New Mexico, there were several serious fires, including one that had burned more than 32,000 acres near Glenwood, and another near Ocate that was moving toward the Philmont Scout Ranch, a Boy Scout camp in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

A 15,000-acre wildfire damaged Los Padres National Forest in southern California. The blaze, 45 miles east of Santa Maria, was started last Monday by an electrical short-circuit.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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