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Firefighters in Southwest Brace For Summer of Dry Discontent

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.

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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.

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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. Ironically, the very force that can douse the fires is also capable of stirring up new ones.

They are especially dangerous early in the monsoon season when a lightning strike can cause a fire "to get up and race off," he says.

Such was the case six years ago in northeast Arizona, when the "Dude" fire destroyed mountain cabins and 26,000 acres of wildland. The area is one of many in Arizona where urban development rapidly is encroaching on once-pristine forests. Weekend cabin retreats and vacation getaways for urban dwellers are landscaped with fire-prone plants and shrubs.

Landscaping for fire

Indeed, the nature of fire in the Southwest and the way in which it is fought has changed from pre-settlement days. Where the land was once dominated by grasses, it is now covered by woody plants.

Compounding the problem is the abandonment of the decades-long practice of regular controlled burns, which mimicked the role of fire in nature. This has allowed the unnatural buildup of fuels that contributed to the "Lone" blaze at Tonto National Forest.

"We've removed that kind of buffering," says Pyne. "Instead, fires that start now have nothing to stop them ... requiring tens of thousands of gallons of retardant."

The Lone fire began on April 27. Two days later, Phoenix residents awoke to a smoky haze that affected the rush-hour commute, blotted the view of nearby mountains, and gave the effect of a partial solar eclipse.

Former Arizona governor and US Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, a certified firefighter, lent a hand on the fire line last week, saying the fire demonstrated the need for a return to controlled burning.

Yet no matter how well man-made controls are put in place, Pyne says, fire is a fact of life in the Southwest.

"They may be in the desert or they may be in the mountains," he says. "They may be started by people ... or they may be started by lightning. But there will be fires. And that is the one constant."

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