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Long, Hot Winter Puts Western Fire Officials On Edge

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The view from atop Conejo Mountain is postcard-worthy. It's 360 degrees of Southern California: mountains, coastline, cookie-cutter homes.

But if you look closer, the greens, blues and browns of Conejo are charred away, burnt a charcoal black.

Mike Lindbery, a captain with the Ventura County Fire Department, was here on this mountain last spring when a wildfire raced up the hillside on its way to torching more than 24,000 acres.

The "Springs fire" started on May 2. Lindbery says it was huge for that time of year in Southern California. "In a typical year," he adds, "on May 2, we're not thinking we're going to have a fire."

But last year's fire season was anything but typical in length. It started early and ended late. That's why this mountain — and this fire — are such good indicators of what this upcoming season might be.

"This area is not going to burn again, I can guarantee it," says Lindbery. "There's nothing left to burn."

But what about other fuel beds, like the Los Padres National Forest, the Angeles and the San Bernardino? "All those areas are experiencing the same stressors on the fuels that caused this fire to run so hard," he says. "We really haven't had any relief from those stressors."

Indeed, it's been a long, hot winter for many parts of the West. Even after some recent rains, almost 95 percent of California remains in some state of drought — and much of the state is in extreme drought. That includes some of California's most densely forested and densely populated areas.

The most recent fire outlook maps provided by the National Interagency Fire Center show a splotch of red in Southern California representing above-normal significant fire potential. That splotch grows from March to April to June, until about two-thirds of the state is covered in red.

That's troubling to firefighters like Lindbery — and it's especially troubling to the people who have to pay them.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell met with fire officials and Western lawmakers earlier this week to discuss the coming fire season, but most of their conversation centered on how to pay for these longer seasons. For perspective, she pointed to 2013.

"It was sort of a new normal fire year in some ways," she said, "but it exceeded the fire suppression budgets for the U.S. Forest Service and all of the bureaus of the Department of the Interior by about a half a billion dollars."

The problem with that is there's little money left over for prevention efforts. Jewell said they have to rob Peter to pay Paul.

"Then we end up with a worse suppression situation," she said, "and it just spirals down, and we have to borrow more money, and so on."

Jewell and Western lawmakers are hoping to change that by paying for the most extreme wildfires with a special emergency fund, the way the government pays for other natural disasters, like hurricanes and tornadoes. President Obama has written the framework for that change into his proposed budget.

Chris Mehl, the policy director at Headwaters Economics, an economic think tank that studies the cost of wildfires, says it's good that Washington is looking for a change. "But I would argue that ... also may miss the boat if that's the only discussion rather than the future larger expenses."

Mehl says the cost of fire suppression has gone from $1 billion a year on average in the 1990s to $3 billion a year this decade. And the bigger trends are all wrong, too.

"A lot of folks call it the three W's," he says. "Wood, weather and WUI" — the wildland urban interface. Those are homes near fire-prone lands, he says. "And in this case, we're seeing an increase in all three in terms of risk."

The wood is getting drier, the weather hotter, and more and more homes are being built in forested areas. And all of that, says Mehl, is especially true in Southern California. Regardless of predictions, or budgets or drought, this year's fire season is going to be a destructive one.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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