McFeatters: Danger of wildfires is increasing, but there are fewer firefighters on the horizon
The winter season, with its freak, heavy snowfalls, is over (fingers crossed here). Hurricane season doesn't begin until June 1. But two other destructive seasons are just getting under way.
Tornado season in the South runs from March to May and steadily moves northward, with the peak season in the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest typically in June and July.
The wildfire season also starts this month. It normally ends sometime in the fall but -- because of less snow and periodic droughts, especially in the Southwest -- the season has extended itself by 60 to 70 days.
Unfortunately, parts of the country may be looking at a rerun of last year's wildfire season, the third most active since 1960. As USA Today summed it up, "Persistent drought and an infestation of tree-killing insects have left broad swaths of the USA vulnerable to unusually fierce wildfires for the second straight year, just as the U.S. Forest Service is dealing with cuts in its firefighting budget."
Last year, the Forest Service spent $1.4 billion fighting monster fires in the West that consumed 9.3 million acres. The conditions this year are, if anything, worse. Last year was the warmest on record for the U.S., meaning generally drier forests.
That, in turn, means hotter, larger and faster-moving fires, the service says. USA Today also notes a new threat: Bark beetles have invaded an estimated 46 million acres in the West, creating highly flammable stands of dead trees.
Because of the across-the-board spending cuts agreed on by the White House and Congress, the Forest Service will have 500 fewer firefighters than its usual 10,000 to 10,500. It can mitigate the cuts by trying to pre-position its firefighters, a tricky judgment when the agency manages 193 million acres in 43 states. When no lives or structures are in danger, it can let a fire burn itself out.
Meanwhile, homeowners can take reasonable precautions: Keep brush cleared well away from dwellings, use fire-resistant building materials (for irrational reasons, cedar-shake roofs were once popular in fire-prone areas), and carry lots of insurance.
And be ready to flee in a hurry with pets, important papers and heirlooms.
Dale McFeatters is a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.