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Western US Braces For More Fires as Heat, Drought Persist

THE fires that consumed neighborhoods here and ponderosa pine in Arizona are a prelude to what may become a Molotov-cocktail summer in the American West. Persistent drought and freakish behavior by man and nature is raising concern of an explosive fire season for the nation's Nomex-suited fire crews.

Coming on the heels of three previous bad years, firefighters are being forced to readjust strategies, while lawmakers are looking for ways to limit the damage.

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``At a minimum, burning conditions are a couple of months ahead of where they would normally be,'' says Robert Swinford, the United States Forest Service's national fire prevention officer.

In areas hit by last week's rash of fires, residents are working to put their lives back together. Nowhere is that process more intense than in this seaside community. Nearly 500 homes and buildings in the chaparral-studded canyons northeast of town were destroyed, making it the worst fire in California since 1923, when 584 homes were lost in Berkeley.

Damage estimates approach $500 million. President Bush has declared it a federal disaster area. Merchants wonder if the destruction will affect tourism.

Harriet Silver's concerns are more immediate. A 27-year resident, she was away visiting relatives when the fires broke out last Wednesday. She returned two days later to find her home a pile of embers.

Now, standing in what used to the living room, she is picking through the debris with white gloves in hopes of salvaging whatever she can. The only thing still standing is the brick fireplace and iron baker's rack that was in her kitchen.

Gone are the more than 1,000 cookbooks she had collected from around the world. Gone are the Baccarat crystal and fine china.

Though shaken, Ms. Silver is resolute about what she will do.

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``I expect to rebuild,'' she says. ``I think it is worth rebuilding. It is a wonderful area. I love my neighbors.''

Similar sagas are being played out in Glendale, near Los Angeles, where 66 homes were lost or damaged, and in the Chino Hills area of San Bernardino County, where 14 houses burned. Arson is suspected in all three fires.

In all, more than 560 structures and two lives were claimed in a week of blazes that was one of the worst in California history.

Cooler temperatures and calmer winds have allowed firefighters to get a handle on most of the blazes in southern California, though some crews remain on the front lines.

In southern Arizona, a fire in the Whetstone Mountains had burned 10,000 acres of the Coronado National Forest and state land.

A San Diego County blaze blackened some 3,650 acres of vegetation, destroyed a building at a Boy Scout camp and a Navy Seabee training facility in a remote area near Lake Henshaw.

In northern California, a brush and timber fire in a rugged area of the Plumas National Forest, east of Quincy, grew to 480 acres.

A fire Thursday afternoon in Claremont, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, scorched 500 acres.

Twenty structures were destroyed in a 4,500-acre brush fire in the Cleveland National Forest, 60 miles east of Los Angeles.

Ironically, this year's fire season started on cue. It usually begins in the Southwest in late June, with the arrival of high temperatures and lightning storms, and then moves up through the Rocky Mountain West, ending in southern California in the late fall. Nature followed the calendar this year; it just had more firepower.

THE reason was the unusual combination of triple-digit temperatures, hairdryer-hot winds, and drought. Nationwide, more than 700 homes have been destroyed so far in 1990 - up from the 350-a-year that is normal but well below the 1,400 that were lost in 1985. Fewer acres have burned so far this year, though, then in 1989.

The question is what happens from here. Four years of drought in the Southwest and parts of the Rocky Mountain West has created visions of a sooty summer. California is one of the biggest concerns. Not only is it parched, but the dryness has lead to an infestation of insects that has killed thousands of trees. Nature has played one other cruel trick: In February, a wet snowfall in the Sierra Nevadas broke branches off trees - which are now sitting on the forest floor as prime kindling.

``The potential is there for a very tough fire season,'' says Karen Terrill of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

To prepare for an incendiary year, federal, state, and local agencies recently added $15 million worth of manpower and equipment in the state, including 500 firefighters and 14 lookouts.

In some parts of Arizona and California, local firefighters have been going door-to-door admonishing residents to keep yards free of brush.

A new strategy has also been adopted: Hit fires hard and fast, so they don't spread.

``You will see a hair-trigger type response,'' says Matt Mathes of the US Forest Service in San Francisco.

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