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Outlook: Dry conditions could fuel fires in South

By Becky Bohrer, Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Wildfires have burned more than 2.3 million acres across the South so far this year, and the region has accounted for more than half the fires reported across the country, according to a report issued Monday.

The one-year high for the South was 2006, with 2.6 million acres burned, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

"2008 has been a tough year for the South region of the country," Dan Smith, fire director for the National Association of State Foresters, said Monday.

Smith doesn't expect this year to top 2006, but said his prediction could become meaningless if dry conditions in Texas give way to fast-moving grass fires before the end of the year. Dry weather has been a major factor across the region this year.

The fire center, in an outlook released Monday, says dry conditions in parts of south-central Texas and Oklahoma are expected this winter to help create or worsen an above normal potential for significant fires, or fires that need additional, outside resources to fight.

The outlook also says that from January through March, forecasted warm and dry conditions will likely lead to an increased potential for significant fires across most of Florida. Fire potential is expected to decrease in Kentucky, the Mid-Atlantic states and Tennessee.

The Southern fire season can begin as early as January, with its peak typically in March and April, Smith said. Florida, Tennessee, and the Appalachian Mountain region were among those busy with fires this year, he said. The Evans Road Fire burned more than 62 square miles in eastern North Carolina.

Of the roughly 75,000 fires reported nationally this year, more than 42,000 were in the South, he said. The 13 states comprising the region are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississsippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

As of Sunday, nearly 5.3 million acres had burned nationally, according to the fire center — well below the nearly 9.9 million acres burned in 2006, with parts of the West — the Northern Rockies and Great Basin, for example — having relatively light years in '08.

(Original Len: 2445 Condensed Len: 2776)

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