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Wildfire risk shifts from Texas to Mountain West: experts

By Jim Forsyth

SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Eastern Arizona, western New Mexico, western Colorado and eastern Utah have above-normal risks of significant wildfire this summer, while no part of Texas is listed in that category, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

That is a big change from last year, when more than 30,000 separate fires across Texas destroyed 3,000 homes, forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate and caused more than $6 billion in damage to the state's farming and ranching economy. About 500 million trees were destroyed in the blazes, according to a Texas Forest Service estimate.

"Our drought conditions have improved," said April Saginor, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service. "We are not in the same shape that we were this time last year."

The National Weather Service last month declared the La Nina weather pattern, which was largely blamed for creating last year's record drought and heat in Texas, to be over.

The reverse, El Nino, which often brings wetter weather to the Southwest and Gulf Coast, may be building, said Robert Korty, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University.

The shift to an El Nino weather pattern may spare Texas from another devastating summer and push the most serious fire danger north to other states, said Jeremy Sullens, a wildfire analyst with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

"El Nino means the possibility of an above-average fire season in the great basin of Nevada and Utah, and elsewhere in the Mountain West, and on to the mountains of Southern California in the fall," he said.

He said the massive fire now burning in New Mexico - the largest in that state's history - does not necessarily mean another major fire season is ahead. Large fires in the Southwest are "not atypical" for this time of year, he said.

"Generally, this has not been a serious fire season to date," Sullens said, adding that officials are "cautiously optimistic" about the remainder of the summer.

BURNED ACREAGE BELOW AVERAGE IN 2012

As of Monday, firefighters were battling 11 large, uncontained blazes, mostly in seven Western states - New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Idaho.

The year-to-date tally of burned acreage across the country is running about 40 percent below average for the same six-month period over the past decade, said Ken Frederick, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center.

By this time last year in Texas, massive wildfires had burned hundreds of thousands of acres and, by year's end, 4 million acres were lost in the state. So far in 2012, just 46,000 acres have burned in the Lone Star State.

A fire danger map from the national Fire Center shows most of Texas low or moderate danger of wildfires, and the Department of Agriculture's U.S. Drought Monitor shows less than 1 percent of the state is in the worst category of exceptional drought. That compares with the 43 percent of Texas that was in that category one year ago.

The lower risk is good news for residents who are still rebuilding after the most destructive wildfire in Texas history erupted east of Austin nine months ago. By the time that fire was brought under control nearly a month later, 2,900 homes had been destroyed, more than 5,000 people had been forced to flee their homes and entire neighborhoods in Bastrop were turned into smoldering ruins.

"We have a long way to go, but there is green here where there used to be black," said Steven Long, a Bastrop County employee whose parents' home was destroyed.

Tens of millions of dollars in insurance money and government and corporate grants have poured into the county, and new homes are sprouting among the blackened stumps of what used to be towering oak trees, he said.

"You hear a lot of nail guns and saws, and Home Depot and hardware stores are busy," he said. "I see people being very resilient, and bouncing back."

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan, Colleen Jenkins and Dan Grebler)

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