By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A wet winter and spring in the American West has set the stage for a wildfire season likely to see more fast-spreading rangeland blazes fueled by thicker growth in grass and brush than last year, government fire forecasters said on Monday.
Although forests are expected to bear their share of fire activity typical for summer, the 2016 season appears more primed for frequent fires in open grasslands and chaparral than for the big, long-burning timber blazes that dominated 2015, they said.
Winter and spring storms that hit the West in recent months, largely associated with a now-fading El Nino weather pattern, should offset some of the lingering effects of a prolonged drought that helped make 2015 a record wildfire season.
The added moisture, especially from snow melt at higher elevations, will probably delay the onset of large timber fires in the months ahead, forecasters said.
But even where rainfall remained at or below normal levels, such as in Southern California, it was enough to spur heavy growth of grass and brush that will dry out over the summer, creating a potent buildup of "fine fuels" that could explode under the right conditions.
"Moisture is a double-edged sword," Jeremy Sullens, a national wildfire analyst for the U.S. Forest Service, told reporters in a conference call.
The "fine fuels" profile was predicted for rangelands in portions of Arizona and New Mexico in May and June, extending into parts of California, Nevada and Idaho by late summer.
Above-normal wildfire potential was also forecast throughout the summer for Hawaii, which is enduring its own drought.
Overall, the forecast differs considerably from the outcome of last year's wildfire season, which blackened a record 10.1 million acres (4 million hectares) of land, about half of that in Alaska alone, and destroyed some 4,500 homes, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
The agency said 13 U.S. wildland firefighters died in the line of duty last year. At least five civilians died in wildfires last year, all of them in California.
The bulk of the devastation occurred in heavy timber blazes that typically are slower moving than range fires but burn over longer periods of time.
One timber region still seen as especially vulnerable to wildfire in the coming months is the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range, where about half the old-growth forests are dead or dying from drought and disease, forecasters said.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney)