Fire season is several months away, but the state’s weather and climate gurus are keeping a close watch on the amount of moisture falling on the ground.
So far 2014 looks like a promising year. State snowpack levels are 17 percent above average, according to data from the University of Wyoming’s Water Resource Data System.
Areas that were scourged in the drought of 2012 have shown significant signs of improvement.
Sixty-four percent of Wyoming was in a state of extreme drought or worse at this time last year, said Tony Bergantino, a climatologist with the Wyoming Climate Office.
“It was exceptional in some parts of the state at this time last year,” he said.
No section of the state is currently experiencing drought.
“Mother Nature has taken care of that,” he said.
The snow arrived in central Wyoming this fall and hasn’t relented. Natrona County and its neighbors have received several feet of snow since the leaves fell off the trees. Natrona and Converse County snowpack levels are 29 percent above average, and Niobrara County is 37 percent above average. Johnson County is 47 percent above average, and Crook County is 56 percent higher than normal.
Water content of the snow in the southwest is lagging behind the state. Most of Sweetwater, Uinta and Lincoln counties is 15 percent below average.
“That part of the state hasn’t seen the best snows yet,” said Chris Jones, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Riverton. “East of the Continental Divide has been healthy. But we haven’t seen it across the southwest.”
What do the low levels signify this early in the year?
“Not a whole lot,” Jones said.
Whether the numbers are high or low, what matters is the quantity of snow on the ground five or six months from now. The current snowpack isn’t doing anything to prevent against a disaster this summer, Jones said.
It will provide no protection if a warm spell hits and the state’s snowpack prematurely enters soil or water sources before temperatures get warmer and fire danger increases.
“We’ve only just begun,” Bergantino said.
The current high levels of snowpack don’t mean much to State Forester Bill Crapser.
“It all boils down to what the weather does in May, June, July and August,” he said. “It’s way too early to predict where we’ll be in the summer.”
In 1909, northern Idaho and Montana received record snowfalls early in the winter. In the spring the precipitation ceased.
“That summer, millions of acres burned in that part of the world,” Crapser said.
The state experienced dry winter months last year. Gov. Matt Mead and state lawmakers were preparing for the worst, appropriating $42 million to fight fires during the budget session.
Then snow in April and rain in May and continued moisture all summer reversed the doom-and-gloom outlook.
The state only spent $1.5 million to fight fires.
“Just one month of a certain pattern change can make a difference,” Jones said.
No matter the uncertainty, Wyoming is in better shape than some Western states.
Parts of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range in California and Nevada are 90 percent below average snowpack levels.
“You don’t recover from that,” Crapser said.