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Fire Fighters Watching Canadian Blaze, Worried About Summer Conditions In U.S.

A wildfire burned down neighborhoods in Wenatchee, Washington, in June of 2015. Last year was a record wildfire season in the Western U.S. and forest managers are worried about an equally, if not more, destructive season this year.

The out-of-control wildfire burning in northern Alberta has fire officials south of the border casting a nervous eye toward the summer.

The latest news that the Canadian blaze has moved into oil fields after destroying parts of an entire city comes as the U.S. Forest Service issues its annual wildfire forecast for the western United States Tuesday.

And the latest forecast is nothing short of a warning to communities in the western U.S. that a similarly destructive wildfire there is quite likely.

"This year we are facing a serious circumstance in California and potentially above normal fire seasons in the Southwest and the southern portion of the United States," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service.

Just consider California, which is entering its fifth year of severe drought. Forest officials say upwards of 40 million stressed trees have died during the period; 29 million of those occurred last year. That in itself amounts to a historic fuel load buildup, and it's not lost on Vilsack that millions of people live in and around tinder dry forests in the state.

"You've got forty million dead trees, you've got forty million opportunities for very intensive fires," he said.

Last year, the country's most destructive wildfire occurred in northern California, engulfing about half of a small town.

Vilsack also used a Tuesday press conference to renew calls on Congress to change how the federal government pays its fire bills.

Last year, the government spent roughly $2.6 billion fighting fires that destroyed some 4,500 homes and claimed the lives of seven firefighters. The Forest Service shouldered the bulk of that expense, and as in previous years, the agency dipped into other programs — such as forest health and restoration projects — to pay the rising fire suppression costs. The agency also had to divert its staff working on projects that could actually prevent future wildfires, Vilsack said.

It's a predicament — if not outright irony — that only seems to be amplified as the wildfire seasons get worse.

In the meantime, U.S. forest officials say they are prepared for a potentially catastrophic wildfire season this summer such as the one that Canada is already experiencing. Ten thousand firefighters, 300 heavy air tankers and dozens of other aircraft are now on call. While not as bad as the situation in Canada, already five times as many acres have burned in the U.S. so far compared to this time last year. And last year set records.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.