Above-Normal Snowpack May Not Reduce Severity Of Summer Fire Season

Mar 10, 2016

The Northwest saw above-normal snowpack this winter. This is welcome news after last year’s droughts and record-low snowpack. But does it mean that the summer fire season will be less severe than 2015?

Maybe not.

Mary Verner, Deputy Supervisor for Wildfire and Administration with the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), says while snowpack may delay the fire season, it doesn’t necessarily mean an easier one.

“Some of the grizzled old fire fighters will tell you that their forecast for the upcoming year will be in October, after the fires are over,” Verner said.

Snowpack can have two very different effects on the flammable material that feeds wildfire. More snow means more moisture in large fuels, such as trees. They’ll dry out later in the season and be harder to ignite. But it also means greater growth of fine fuels: grass and small vegetation near the ground. Combine that with a warm winter and an early spring, and it has the potential to create a lot of dry wood that could spread fire quickly.

“We are going to prepare for another severe fire season,” Verner said. “That is the prudent thing to do. … Having rain and snow doesn’t mean we don’t have to be prepared for a wildfire season that could be just as intense as the one that preceded this one.”

Sandra Kaiser, Communications Director for Washington DNR, says that preparation includes working with private landowners to reduce fire risk on their land.

“[We] help them put together a plan for which trees to remove – particularly which diseased trees need to go – and help them clean up both the trees which are overstocked and all of the limbs that have fallen down and created ladder fuels during the summer,” Kaiser said.

Those ladder fuels, which build up around the base of a tree, can carry fire up into needles and leaves. There are also prescribed burns planned to clear out flammable materials.

“We anticipate the prescribed burns that have already been planned should be able to proceed,” Kaiser said. “We were fortunate to see some funding last year from the legislature to set up some prescribed burns.”

But, Kaiser said, they still face resource deficiencies, including outdated equipment. Some radios, Kaiser said, “are literally being held together with duct tape.” Washington DNR is also asking the legislature for funding for joint training and upgrades to local fire districts, who are often the closest to fires when they ignite.

“We have been fighting the fires that we’ve seen the last few seasons, which have been larger and more dangerous, with the same personnel we had under the recessionary caps in 2008,” Kaiser said.

Washington DNR has information available on preparing your home and property for wildfire.

Copyright 2016 Northwest Public Radio