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A wildland firefighter takes a break amid thick smoke near the site of a back burn operation on the south end of the Lolo Peak fire on Aug. 28. 

TOMMY MARTINO, Missoulian

A huge snowpack could counterbalance a hot and dry summer as forecasters calculate the odds of trouble in the 2018 fire season.

Analyses from the Northern Rockies Coordination Center call for an above-average potential fire season this year. But while conditions are lining up for a bad year like 2006 or 2012, the ongoing cold wet spring might cut us a break.

NRCC Meteorologist Michael Richmond said in a fire season outlook briefing that most Montana snow measuring sites have between 121 to 160 percent of average snow depth still unmelted in mid-April. That’s the best load since 1997, and could keep creeks, rivers and lakes full longer into the drier part of the summer.

On the other hand, weather patterns are moving from the cool and damp La Niña cycle to a more neutral phase, which usually means slightly warmer than normal summer temperatures. That extra winter moisture could actually have an unfortunate side effect in encouraging lots of low-elevation grass and shrub growth, which dries out and becomes fire fuel later in the year.

"We would expect near-average fire potential through June," Richmond said. "But each month tends to have higher warm and dry potential. So we're seeing above average fire potential in July and August."

While the upper elevations will stay white longer into the summer, valleys below 5,000 feet have already seen most of their winter snow melt away.

Last year suffered a remarkable “flash-drought” in late June and July that caught forecasters off guard, Richmond said. The result was a busier than usual fire season even though the region didn’t get nearly as many natural lightning starts as other bad years. The 2017 flash drought hit eastern Montana particularly hard, however that condition appears to have faded in 2018.

Last year's fires burned 1.5 million acres of Montana, three times the average total. And that average got bumped up by about 50,000 acres last year, due to the high number of million-acre-plus seasons in the last decade.

The rest of the West has not fared so well. Much lower snowpacks and early dry conditions have returned parts of California and the Great Basin to drought conditions after a brief reprieve last year.

Most of southern New Mexico was under Red Flag warning over the weekend while a 41,000-acre fire near Colorado Springs, Colorado destroyed 23 homes as of Friday. Several Missoula-based Neptune Aviation air tankers were confronting that fire with retardant drops.

Those are on top of an Oklahoma fire complex that’s blackened 316,000 acres and destroyed 63 homes. Extreme fire danger conditions covered most of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, as well as northwest Kansas and southeast Colorado due to very strong winds and very low relative humidity in those areas.

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