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By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - U.S. wildfire managers facing increasingly strained resources have opened talks with Pentagon commanders and Canadian officials about possible reinforcements of personnel and aircraft to battle dozens of blazes raging across the drought-parched American West.
Preliminary plans for military and international aid come as the U.S. Forest Service is feeling the pinch of federal budget cuts known as sequestration even as demand for firefighters and equipment such as air tankers is exceeding supply, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
Elite teams of firefighters known as hotshots and smoke jumpers, whose job it is to mount the initial attack on blazes in remote, rugged terrain, are stretched too thin, said Stephen Gage, assistant operations director for fire and aviation management for the Forest Service.
The agency's 100-plus hotshot crews are all either assigned to fires in the West or are taking required periods of rest and recovery, leaving no spare teams to dispatch to any additional fires where they might be needed, he said.
"We have just a limited number of those assets. We'd love to give everybody what they need when they ask for it," he said. "Deciding which area gets those highly skilled crews and which doesn't is the hardest thing we do."
Fire managers are poised to decide in coming days whether to "pull the trigger" on a pending request to the U.S. military for an initial deployment of 200 ground troops to supplement firefighting personnel, Gage said. It would take roughly a week to train and mobilize those troops, who would then be assigned to large fires in the West.
Thousands of firefighters were laboring on Thursday to suppress dozens of blazes raging in several Western states, from a monster fire menacing the area around the world-class ski resort in Sun Valley, Idaho, to a California blaze near Yosemite National Park that more than tripled in size overnight.
Meanwhile, weather forecasters have predicted heightened wildfire risks for northern California, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies posed by storm systems likely to bring lightning and strong winds.
FIRE INDEX RAISED
U.S. fire managers this week opened the way to potentially seeking military aid and gaining firefighting resources stemming from agreements with Canada, Australia and New Zealand by raising the national wildfire alert index to the maximum level of 5 for the first time in five years.
Gage said he could not recall any previous instance in recent years when the United States has requested large-scale Canadian assistance, such as fire crews and aircraft, in addition to the several air tankers already on loan from Canada.
"We've opened discussions with Canada about utilizing their assets if they are available," he said.
Federal fire officials have already shifted stores of equipment such as hand tools and supplies from Southern states like Kentucky to the West amid all-out air and ground offensives against flames that have charred hundreds of thousands of acres (tens of thousands of hectares) of parched sagebrush, grasslands and forests.
The 2013 fire season has already seen the most destructive fire in Colorado history, the deadliest blaze on record in Arizona and has forced the evacuation of many thousands across the region.
Years of drought have played a key role in the ignition and spread of blazes that fire managers say stand out for their intensity and speed, even as the overall acreage burned remains below the 10-year average.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Sandra Maler)