Forecasters and foresters say droughtlike conditions expected to stretch through spring will make for a fast-paced 2006 wildfire season in North Carolina.
The prime period for rogue blazes in fields and forests got a blustery early start Thursday when high winds swept through the state and triggered the year's first Red Flag Warning.
Gusts topping 40 mph threatened to turn even the smallest ember into a runaway blaze. In Durham, two wind-driven early morning fires -- possibly ignited by sparks from a passing train -- flared within minutes of each other. Flames from the second blaze leaped from a patch of tindery brush and burned 10 automobiles at a used-car dealership.
The Red Flag Warning -- issued by the National Weather Service when warm temperatures, high winds and bone-dry fuels create a widespread wildfire risk -- covered 31 central and southeastern counties. The area encompasses the Triangle and Cumberland County, home of Fayetteville and Fort Bragg, and stretches westward into the mountains.
State foresters are bracing for a raging wildfire season, nervously eyeing the early warning, the dryness of forest floor fuels like pine needles and the weather models that predict a substantial rainfall deficit by late spring. In North Carolina, the spring wildfire season from March into May is the busiest.
"It's a little early to be working as many fires as we are," said Michael Good, district forester for the N.C. Division of Forest Resources zone that includes Johnston County. "And if this is any sign, this is going to be a real busy spring."
Dry conditions are expected to get worse instead of better, said Jeff Orrock, severe weather warning coordinator at the National Weather Service office in Raleigh.
Late last year, heavy rain helped ease drought conditions and refill parched reservoirs, lakes and streams. But rainfall has been sparse since early January, and the Triangle is already running just over a 4-inch deficit.
And with the presence of the La Nina phenomenon -- a mass of cold Pacific Ocean water off the coast of South America -- that rainfall deficit could bottom out at 7 inches by the end of spring, Orrock said.
"This season is going to be much worse than other seasons for wildfires because we're already working our way into a drought," Orrock said.
These parched prospects have Orrock pointing to a dreaded source of rainfall salvation -- a hurricane or tropical storm.
He realizes this is a dire hope considering last year's record-breaking hurricane season, which featured 27 named storms, including Hurricane Katrina.
"You hate to say that, but if the drought continues and worsens, we'll need a major rain event to give us moisture," he said.
By late Thursday afternoon, state forestry fire bosses tallied 45 wildfires statewide for the day that burned 865 acres. But not every gust-aided blaze is included in that figure -- forestry firefighters didn't battle the two fires caused by the train in Durham.
They did handle small wildfires in northern Durham, Orange and Johnston counties.
On Wednesday, there were 63 wildfires statewide that scorched 1,020 acres, said Jim Prevette, fire chief for the N.C. Division of Forest Resources. That includes two wildfires in Johnston County that burned 4.5 acres and a Surry County blaze that started Tuesday, torched more than 700 acres and forced forestry firefighters to call in two helicopters and a tanker plane that can scoop 1,500 gallons of water out of a lake.
Since January, there have been 1,077 wildfires that blackened 2,600 acres, said Jamie Kritzer, spokesman for the state forestry agency. Those blazes damaged or destroyed 71 barns and buildings -- but no homes -- and 14 vehicles, causing $890,000 in losses.
"This is a very busy time for us," Kritzer said.
(Staff writer Samiha Khanna contributed to this report.)
Staff writer Jim Nesbitt can be reached at (919) 829-8955 or firstname.lastname@example.org.