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Western wildfire season 'likely to set a record'

Firefighters monitor the Colby Fire on Highway 39, January 17, 2014, in Azusa, California.
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Firefighters monitor the Colby Fire on Highway 39, January 17, 2014, in Azusa, California.

Three years of severe drought have made plenty of misery for California and other Western states. Now to make matters worse, the extremely dry conditions are creating the potential for a devastating fire season.

"All the pieces are in place for a really bad season of wildfires," said Malcolm North, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service. "We're likely to set a record for fires this year."

In fact, the dry spell is already having an effect this year.

(Read more: White House pledges $1 billion to prepare for climate change)

"We've had nearly 600 wildfires since January 1 in California," said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "In a normal year that figure would be closer to 150 fires."

The drought has hit hard in states like Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and especially California, where the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada is at just 12 percent of the annual average. Snow pack in the Cascades in Washington and Oregon is also below normal.

That has dried out the trees, shrubs and grasses that end up fueling the fires.

The number of wildfires has increased over the years. In the 1980s, wildfires burned on average 2.98 million acres a year in the U.S. However, between 2003 and 2012, an average of 7.26 million acres burned each year.

(Read more: Impact of drought lingers in Texas)

The average length of the annual fire season has grown by 78 days over the last four decades.

Also almost certain to grow is the cost of battling wildfires. National costs have averaged $1.8 billion annually for the past five years, and the 2012 fire season was among the most expensive on record for many regions and states, according to Headwater Economics, a nonprofit research group.

But if just half of the private lands near public forests are developed in the future, annual firefighting costs "could explode to between $2.3 and $4.3 billion," said Headwater. By comparison, the Forest Service's total average annual budget is $5.5 billion. of which $2.1 billion is used for firefighting.

(Read more: How the Pacific could be California's drought fix)

In the past two years, the federal government outspent its budget each year for fighting fires and needed to divert funds that were meant for fire prevention.

"We're doing all we can to clean out the brush and adding additional staff," said Berlant, whose department is funded by the state of California and had a budget of more than $530 million in fiscal year of 2009-10.

"We're trying to get homeowners to buy fire-resistant plants, said Berlant, who noted that 94 percent of wildfires in California are caused by humans.

Wildfires are part of the natural climate and often welcomed as a way to clean out land covered with dead wood, said the Forest Service's North. But he said the extreme drought is putting healthy trees under stress.

"Because they aren't getting any water, the trees are in danger and won't survive, creating more fuel for fires," he said.

North added that the level of destruction this year's fire season brings will depend a lot on luck.

"All we can do is hope for more rain and hope we get some," he said. "But we've had years of dry conditions, so it will take a lot of rain for a long time to prevent the fires."

—By CNBC's Mark Koba. Follow him on Twitter @MarkKobaCNBC.

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