Western Drought Leads to Early Wildfire Season

Some 400 firefighters in Bailey are struggling to protect hundreds of homes from a wildfire that has doubled in size in 24 hours, setting the stage for a terrible summer.

Extra planes and helicopters were brought in today to drop fire-retardant chemicals on the blaze, but they are proving no match for this wind-driven fire that is exploding through tinder-dry grass, brush and Ponderosa pine.

"It scares the hell out of us, frankly," says Dave Steinke, a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. "It's April and we've got August conditions out there. Things are just bone dry and it's scary."

The fire, which forced the evacuation of more than 1,000 homes in Bailey, a commuter community near Denver, has nearly doubled in size.

The number of firefighters has doubled, too — but 400 firefighters have not been enough to contain this 2,400-acre blaze.

"We're not ready," said Marc Mullinex, the division chief of the Boulder, Colo., Fire Department. "And Mother Nature is way ahead of us this year."

Many of the national firefighting crews — the Hot Shots and the Smoke Jumpers — have not even been hired yet at this point, let alone trained new members. The typical fire season usually runs from May 15 through November, but many localities have extended their season, which means extra staffing and more equipment.

Unusually Dry Conditions

This unusually early fire season is the result of an extremely dry winter and summer-like conditions. In much of the West, the winter snow pack is 80 percent below normal.

Drought conditions now plague eight Western states. Precipitation levels are 200 percent below normal. Those same states are expected to have greater than normal fire activity this summer.

"We would need 6 feet of snow to get close to making up to where we need to be, and that's just not going to happen," explained Mullinex.

Western governors, including Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, have declared drought emergencies in five states and are warning of serious consequences, not just for firefighters but also consumers. Wheat and beef prices are expected to increase by at least 10 percent, while municipal water supplies, wildlife and even tourism may suffer.

"The moisture level's at record lows, the humidity out here right now is 3 percent," said Owens, who released $500,000 to fight fires. "There's nothing [in the weather forecast] that indicates we're going to get substantial relief."

It promises to be a long summer. Already, 85,000 acres of land have burned in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona — and it's only April.