By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. Forest Service on Tuesday predicted an above normal wildfire season for vast swaths of the western and northern United States due to drought and higher-than-average temperatures.
The forecast indicating large and possibly more damaging fires comes as parched portions of the U.S. West have already experienced blazes weeks before the usual start of wildland fire season in late spring.
"We expect 2015 to continue the trend of above average fire activity," Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in testimony to a U.S. Senate panel in Washington.
"Above normal wildland fire potential exists across the north central United States and above normal wildland fire potential will threaten many parts of the West this summer," Tidwell added.
Federal fire managers typically see wildfires ignite in the mountains and grasslands of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming as early as May and as late as October.
Firefighters last month battled wind-driven flames on forest lands in Montana that forced hundreds of people to evacuate from a ski area. [ID:nL2N0WW00E]
The fire was one of several in late March in the Northern Rocky Mountains, where unseasonably warm temperatures and gusting winds gave rise to extreme fire behavior usually seen in the region in late fall.
"The fire season has already started here and has been going for a month. It's not this way every year," said Kari Boyd-Peak, spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
The National Interagency Fire Center has predicted above normal fire threats in May for portions of California, and said June is expected to have above average wildland fire potential in California, southwestern Arizona and the Pacific Northwest.
Tidwell said in testimony to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources he expects his agency this year to spend between $794 million and $1.6 billion to fight fires on federal lands, most of which span Western states.
The Forest Service, which has averaged about $1.13 billion annually for fire suppression operations over the past 10 years, expects to mobilize 10,000 firefighters for the season and has reserved 21 air tankers to drop water and fire retardant, he said.
Tidwell said an agreement with the U.S. military will allow federal fire managers to tap eight massive C-130 aircraft retrofitted to carry large amounts of fire retardant.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Eric M. Johnson and Will Dunham)