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Season of fire threatens large swath of US

Hundreds of firefighters responded to a wildfire in Alabama's Gulf State Park near Mobile. Some businesses in the area were forced to close. (Source: WKRG/CNN) Hundreds of firefighters responded to a wildfire in Alabama's Gulf State Park near Mobile. Some businesses in the area were forced to close. (Source: WKRG/CNN)

PHOENIX (RNN) - Arizona is ablaze. Texas is a tinderbox. And one of the worst droughts in U.S. history is creeping eastward, bringing with it the likelihood of devastating wildfires to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

The Wallow Fire in Arizona, the biggest in state history, has consumed close to 800 square miles, an area bigger than New York City and Chicago combined. Fires continue to erupt across the state and an eruption in New Mexico had threatened the Los Alamos nuclear facility and forced an evacuation of thousands of residents.

Since the beginning of the year, Texas has seen more than 3 million acres go up in flames. More than three-quarters of the state is experiencing extreme to exceptional drought.

Louisiana and Mississippi, which recently battled the worst floods in the history of the Mississippi River, are now fighting fires. In Georgia and North Carolina, smoke from massive fires drifted into neighboring South Carolina and Virginia, where people with asthma and other lung diseases were warned not to go outdoors.

Is the unprecedented fire season of 2011 the result of global warming producing longer periods of hot, dry weather? Experts are reluctant to say. But one said it's really irrelevant because short-term factors are more significant.

Man, nature collide

Stephen J. Pyne of Arizona State University, who wrote a book about an historic outbreak of wildfires in 1910, told the Associated Press, "We don't even need to involve global warming" in this year's scenario. "All you need is a couple of weeks of really dry weather."

And weather is only one factor in the complex causation of wildfires. Many ecosystem elements combine to create wildfire: Short-term weather, regional trends in climate and the effects of storm damage on vegetation, which is a troubling factor in Alabama and Missouri, where spring tornado outbreaks splintered trees and churned up acres of debris, creating tons of available fuel.

The most significant element is human activity.

People cause about 90 percent of wildfires, from arson, discarded cigarettes, improperly burning debris, sparks from vehicles and power lines. But humanity has gotten a huge assist from nature this year, in the form of an extraordinary drought.

Climatologists say the reason for this year's drought is La Nina – a cooling of surface waters in the tropical Pacific Ocean that affects where storms form and where jet streams are located all across the planet.

In the United States, a powerful La Nina effect pushes the storm track north, which means less rain in the South.

"A strong La Nina episode over the last nine months or so, one of the longest in years, has created such a ripple effect that it's the prime driver of what we're seeing now," said David Brown, the regional climate services director for the South Region of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

The good news: The La Nina episode is over.

The bad news: It'll be weeks before the affected regions see any relief in the form of rains.

"Climatology is on our side, the atmosphere is on our side," Brown said. "We expect things to even out as we go into summer. We expect to see more typical summer showers and thunderstorms, and tropical moistures. But all those things are hit-and-miss."

Relief could be a long way off for the parched west because there are not many big storm systems expected to develop in the near future. The prospects improve further out, perhaps as far off as September.

Relief can be a mixed blessing at this time of year because in much of the South, significant rain usually comes from tropical storms and hurricanes, which open up a whole other set of problems.

Situation precarious

More than 3,000 firefighters were deployed to Arizona's Wallow fire from around the country. There is still plenty of excess capacity for interstate cooperation in battling blazes, but the fire season is young and officials are antsy.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, ID, is the national support center for wild land firefighting. It facilitates and coordinates firefighting resources, deploying them to areas where they are needed.

The Center currently ranks the National Preparedness Level at 3 on a scale of 5, which means resources have been mobilized to multiple stricken areas and half of the available crews have been deployed. The scale made it to Level 5 once before, in 2002. Level 5 means all agency fire resources are in danger of exhaustion.

The agency is adopting a wait-and-see attitude as the fire season spreads north.

Multiple fires continue to burn in the west and in Florida, and officials in the parched Southeast hope for the best. The fire season, longer in some parts of the country, is primarily a late-spring until early-fall phenomenon. We're not halfway through, and parts of the northern U.S. are only now entering the early stages.

Officials at the state and local levels are hoping to raise awareness by issuing "no burn orders" and in some cases, banning the sale or use of fireworks as the Fourth of July holiday approaches. Alabama's situation has been made worse by the sour economy. The state's forestry commission has just 176 firefighters across the state, down from 230 a year ago – all a result of budget cuts.

Alabama's situation is precarious because local firefighters are crucial to contain forest fire in the early stages. Once a wild fire spreads to more than about 5 or 10 acres, it spreads quickly – the Wallow Fire in Arizona is believed to have started from a single unattended campfire.

While out-of-state, national or even military resources can be called on to assist, by the time they arrive, the situation is already dire.

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