MISSOULA — All signs point to a slow wildfire season for the northern Rockies, according to experts with the Northern Rockies Coordination Center.
Meteorologist Bryan Henry with the NRCC’s Predictive Services said Monday during a presentation to government officials that a number of different factors will come into play to reduce the threat of a disastrous wildfire season.
An above-average snowpack melting at a slower-than-average rate, historical weather patterns and relatively cooler and wetter weather due to El Nino will most likely combine to make for less frequent and less intense fires in the region this year.
“We’re definitely going to have a fire season this year, and our job at Predictive Services is to determine what kind of fire season we’re going to have,” Henry said. “Is it going to be an above-normal season, a barnburner year, a normal season or a below-normal season? And this is one of the few occasions where all the variables that we look at, as far as predicting a fire season, all point in one direction, which is very rare. It makes it a little bit easier on us meteorologists. It makes us feel a little bit better.”
Henry spoke to Gov. Steve Bullock and other firefighting agency representatives at an annual fire season outlook briefing at the Department of Natural Resource and Conservation’s forestry division headquarters in Missoula.
He began his presentation by saying that forecasters always use the past to come up with prediction models.
“As we go back and look at the historical record during the modern fire era, since climate change really kicked in in earnest, we find we have these little peaks in the fire season roughly every three to five years,” he said. “Of course there was a peak in 2012, and there is a good lull in between the peak. And we find ourselves at the bottom of one of those lulls. Statistically speaking, if you are just looking at the numbers alone, it would suggest that we are in for a slower fire season. But it would be dangerous to just assume that without looking at other inputs.”
The first of those inputs is to look at what happened the previous fall and winter weather.
“When we look at factors that impact our fire season, we always go back and look at the previous fall,” Henry said. “It was a little bit warmer and drier during the fall last year, but the snowpack has been great to us. But what’s more important is how slow that snowpack comes off. And it’s coming off at a very slow rate this year. And projections are that it will continue to come off at a slow rate. And that’s very key. The research today that we have suggests that for years that we have a slow melting of the snowpack, we tend not to have as many fires. And our fires tend not to be as large. And the opposite is true as well. So that’s one factor that’s really breaking our way currently.”
Another important variable forecasters look at is spring weather.
“This spring looks like it will be fairly cool and fairly wet compared to other springs we have on record,” Bryan said. “And that bodes well for us as we head into the summer months. And as we get to the summer, looking at temperatures and precipitation, we know that we’re heading into an El Nino at this point in time. What El Nino means to our region is that we tend to get a little bit of moisture during the summer months, and a little bit of moisture means a lot, especially when the fuels start drying out. So that bodes very well for us we think.”
Bryan said temperatures will probably be right around normal.
“Hopefully we are not looking at too many 100-degree days this year,” he said. “And so that’s going to help keep our fuels from becoming critically dry, probably until August as far as the west side of the state. Now, the eastern side is a different story. With the grass, probably, we’re going to have issues. We do think we’re going to continue to get moisture to keep things at bay, which is a good thing continuing into the season. And it all depends on lightning activity. How much are we going to get, and are they going to be dry storms or wet storms? Right now, everything is pointing toward wet storms rather than dry storms. So once we get moisture with the storms, that helps out as well.”
The latest drought monitor readings in Montana and immediately surrounding areas show that the state is in good shape.
“This is one of the first springs that I can remember that we have no drought,” Bryan said. “There’s a little bit of a dry signal just south of Dillon. That’s really about it. It’s looking really good night now. But as we look out at our neighbors in the Southwest and the Southern Plains, it’s looking really bleak for them. These folks are expecting bad fire years out that way.”
Over the past 60 days, the precipitation in Western Montana has been 75 percent of average, which Bryan said was fairly good. Eastern Montana has been wet all winter, but that means the high grass growth could burn in the late summer.
Temperatures have been below normal for the last 30 days, helping the snowpack melt off at a slower rate.
There are good odds that El Nino, a disruption of the ocean-atmosphere system in the tropical Pacific Ocean, will have large effects on the weather in the northern Rockies.
“There is a very high probability for heading to El Nino, and we’re actually just about there right now,” Bryan said. “And we’re probably going to continue that through the summer months. For the summer that means near-normal temperatures and maybe slightly above-normal precipitation, and next winter that means bad skiing.”
In conclusion, Bryan said that all the things forecasters look at going into this fire season point toward a season that’s normal or below normal.
“It’s more probable that we’re below normal on our fire season this year,” he said. “The problems are more-so in the Southwest, which means we will be sending resources out of the region. Of course, we will have our own fair share of fires, but it probably won’t get out of hand this year, we don’t think.”
Bullock praised the interagency cooperation between the Forest Service, the DNRC, the Montana Fire Chiefs Association, the Montana Fire Wardens Association, the BLM, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Disaster and Emergency Services and the National Guard.
“I was taking a family hike right outside of Helena yesterday and it was snowing,” he said. “Many people right now are thinking about the floods from March and where we are. Folks don’t always realize that fire season will soon be upon us and planning for it and having these discussions even now is that much more essential than waiting until we’re in the midst of it. Fire season is unpredictable. I’m encouraged as I look out and see so many agencies working together to ensure that we’re prepared. We know that so much of fire season, in some respects, is out of our control. But we also recognize that there’s steps we can take to ensure that we are as prepared as possible.”