Low snowpack and high temps could lead to severe fire season

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

Here we go again.

Record setting temperatures and snowpack levels that are half that of the normal average could possibly contribute to another elevated fire season in North Idaho.

“As far as a normal season, we’re a little behind with respect to our snowpack,” said Kevin Davis, hydrologist for Sandpoint Ranger District. “Up here in the Northern Panhandle, and the Spokane and Clearwater basin to the south … snowpack is about half of what it normally is this time of year.”

The Northern Panhandle Basin, which includes drainages from the Kootenai, Clark Fork and Pend Oreille watersheds, is about 45% of normal. The Spokane River basin, which includes watersheds from the Coeur d’Alene River is at 43% while the Clearwater Basin farther south is slightly better at 55%.

A firefighter sprays down a hot spot near the western slope of the fire line near Cape Horn in July, 2015. Photo by Ben Olson.

A firefighter sprays down a hot spot near the western slope of the fire line near Cape Horn in July, 2015. Photo by Ben Olson.

According to Meteorologist John Livingstone with the Spokane Weather Forecast Office, it wasn’t a lack of snow that contributed to the snowpack reducing, but a hot, dry April.

“The snowpack at its peak in North Idaho and the Spokane Basin did make it up to 100%, and a little more in some places,” said Livingstone. “We normally see the peak around the first of April, then it starts melting off. This year, we had a very warm April and we saw the snowpack coming off a lot earlier.”

“Since April was so warm and we didn’t have our typical couple of feet of snowfall that comes in April, we were losing snow the whole month,” said Davis. “It was actually a record amount of snow that was lost in April.”

New data released from NASA put April’s land and sea temperatures at 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than average April temperatures between 1951 to 1980, which NASA uses are a reference point to study climate change.

In fact, April marks the seventh month in a row to rise by at least 1 degree Celsius above the 1951-80 reference averages.

According to Livingstone, April’s temperature was 7.7 degrees [Fahrenheit] above average for the region: “I see two days when the temperatures were below average. From the 17th to the 22nd, each day was ten degrees or more above average, and the 20th and 21st were 20 degrees or more above average.”

The Sandpoint Ranger District uses 30-year average periods to ascertain trends in climate change in the region. The current period they use extends from 1981 to 2011. The 30-year average periods change every ten years.

According to Davis, if you take into account several key factors, the snowpack level might actually be lower than originally estimated.

“In the period before this one, 1971-2001, that was a period of cooler, wetter weather,” he said. “It had about 15% more precipitation and snowpack, which means if you’re looking at 45% of the normal snowpack, maybe we’re actually at 30% of what we normally would experience.”

A crew of hotshots from Montana mop up at Cape Horn Fire in July, 2015. Photo by Ben Olson.

A crew of hotshots from Montana mop up at Cape Horn Fire in July, 2015. Photo by Ben Olson. 

Another factor includes where the actual snow collection sites are situated on the mountain: “Because of the early snowmelt period starting in March and the hot weather in April, there’s no snow on south and west aspects. I think you could decrease the snow percentage to account for that, too.”

Though the snowpack levels are lower than desired, they still pale in comparison to last year’s totals.

“We are ahead of last year,” said Davis. “Last year, the Bear Mountain SNOTELL showed 15% [of normal]. So we’re doing better.”

Last year’s fire season proved to be one of the worst in the Inland Northwest’s history. Over 800,000 acres burned in Idaho, and Washington saw over 1.1 million acres burned.

The National Interagency Fire Center issued their National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook for May through August. While Southern California, the Great Basin, the Desert Southwest, Hawaii and Alaska are all listed as “above average” for threat of wildfire, the Northwest is predicted to have an average fire season with the risk of large fires not expected until June and large, costly fires more likely in July and August.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, the state with the largest percentage of households at high or extreme risk from wildfires is Idaho. Colorado and California are second and third, respectively.

For Livingstone, the most important factors that contribute to a severe fire year are the weather that occurs during the fire season and how cool and wet the spring is.

“You can have dry conditions and susceptible fuels, but if you don’t have the starts, you’re not going to get it,” he said. “But if you have a cool, wet spring, because you start out with a greener situation as you get toward the middle of July, the chances of getting a large fire going is less. Last summer we were in the worst case scenario when we had that nasty heat spell at the end of June that just made things worse.”

Davis agrees that June is an important month: “Our last chance for moisture is June. If that doesn’t happen, I think the stage is set. If it continues warm and dry through June, I’m thinking there’s a possibility of a fire season similar to last year.”

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