Officials mobilize fresh crews as fires stretch resources

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BOISE, Idaho (AP) Three hundred more firefighters flew into the nation's wildfire command center on Thursday to prepare for dispatch, as the National Interagency Fire Center mobilized fresh crews to reinforce the thousands now manning the lines in the West.

The center also began organizing a cadre of firefighting trainers to prepare Army troops for firefighting duty, should they be called upon as they were a year ago.

The center went to its highest alert level on Wednesday, warning that fires now burning have the potential to exhaust resources. By Thursday, that risk had eased, however slightly.

''We did make progress,'' center spokeswoman Sue Tholen said. ''We had eight new fires, but we contained 12, so in the short term our resource situation looks good.''

But forecasters posted a red-flag warning across much of eastern Washington, where high temperatures and low humidity combined with wind to heighten the fire threat, and they predicted gusting winds over much of the rest of the region.

''It's the weekend with those windy conditions, scattered dry lightning that we're trying to get through,'' Tholen said.

Conditions have been deteriorating. Since Saturday, the West has seen 2,233 new fires, including the major fires still active on Thursday, burn 641,410 acres. While the number of fires is just a fraction of the 55,000 fires recorded so far this year in the United States, the acreage accounts for a quarter of everything burned in 2001.

With the region's 485 20-man fire crews already mobilized, another 105 crews have been brought in from Alaska and other parts of the country, and the firefighting trainers were expected by the weekend even though no plans have been announced yet to commit soldiers on any fires.

Military liaison Tom Frey said the Pentagon was putting together a list of battalions that could be tapped for fire duty if the manpower is needed. More than 3,000 soldiers and Marines were mobilized to fight fire last summer.

If activated, Frey said troops would undergo initial training at their bases and complete it at the fire center before being dispatched to the field.

In addition, four military C-130 aircraft had already been fitted to drop fire retardant and were operating out of Klamath Falls, Ore. Frey said four more are expected in Boise Friday to be set up to join the air war.

Center officials said they were also talking with Canadian officials about diverting some of their air tankers to the western United States, as Canada did in 2000.

In all, 21,000 people were committed to wildfires throughout the West along with 165 helicopters and 11 air tankers.

Still, this summer's wildfires are short so far of the magnitude and severity of a year ago.

Last Aug. 16, 70 major fires were burning or had already burned 1.1 million acres, more than twice the acreage charred by fires burning on Thursday.

And more than 67,000 fires had blackened nearly 5 million acres nationwide by mid-August 2000, more than twice the acreage burned so far this year.

Manpower eventually exceeded 30,000 to battle fires last year that eventually destroyed 861 structures and cost $1.3 billion to suppress

The nation went into the 2001 fire season with 5,000 more firefighters because of last year's devastation, and officials said they have kept up with demand from the field for crews and equipment.

''We've had the dry weather, but we haven't had the lightning strikes that we had last year,'' Tholen said. ''Right now, we're confident that we have the resources to handle the current situation. As conditions change, our opinion on that will also.''

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