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Bracing for another bad fire year
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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Despite the slowest start to a wildfire season in a decade, the head of the U.S. Forest Service said Tuesday his agency is preparing for another busy year, but with fewer firefighters.

Late winter storms have helped bring more snow and rain to some parts of the country, but Chief Tom Tidwell told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that much of the South and Southwest are expected to dry out by May and June as drought conditions persist.

That will give way to a season much like last year, when more than 14,500 square miles — an area bigger than the state of Maryland — were charred. A dozen lives were also lost last year and more than 2,200 homes and businesses were destroyed.

The predicted hot spots for wildfires this year? Tidwell pointed to Florida, Arizona, New Mexico and Southern California.

"The areas I'm talking about now are influenced by these severe and ongoing droughts, and that doesn't get changed with any few storms. So the potential is there," he said.

The most recent forecast from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, show normal fire conditions through March, but things begin to change in April. In the Upper Midwest, for example, deficits in soil moisture are expected to lead to an increase in significant fire potential.

NIFC meteorologist Ed Delgado cautioned that much will depend on the spring storm track as well as how fast or slow snowpack in the higher elevations melts this year.

"Drought, it's one of the factors in determining fire season, but it's not the only one. There are a lot of other things we're looking at to gauge what's going to happen."

The predictions are key as the Forest Service ramps up for the season. The agency, which is trying to absorb a 5 percent cut in its preparedness funding due to sequestration, plans to preposition firefighters and other resources in areas where fire activity is expected to be above normal.

The funding cut will mean about 500 fewer fighters and 50 fewer engines with crews. The agency will also have to rely more on aircraft that are not on contract with the federal government, and Tidwell said that could ultimately lead to higher firefighting costs.

"We will respond like we always have, whatever it takes for us to be prepared," he said.

Last year saw record-setting fires in New Mexico and Oregon, while Colorado suffered through one of its worst fire seasons in more than a decade. At one point last summer, there were 10 fires burning across that state. Overall, several Western states had more acres burned in 2012 than the previous year, and the Forest Service spent more than $1.4 billion battling the blazes.

Since the beginning of the year, fewer than 54 square miles have burned nationwide, according to federal statistics. Last year at this time, fires had burned three times as much land.

Despite the slow start, Tidwell said the combination of drought, above-normal temperatures and a little bit of wind can be explosive when it comes to wildfire.

"Communities need to be aware of that," he said, adding that prevention of human-caused fires will alleviate some of the pressure on firefighting resources.