Drought-like conditions may portend another challenging season
With early May weather that felt more like mid-summer, fire danger in eastern Washington rose along with the temperatures.
The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) last week announced that fire danger increased from low to moderate in several areas of eastern Washington, including the Methow Valley.
DNR has implemented a new system to evaluate fire danger, based on geographic areas that share similar fuels, climate and topography in addition to administrative boundaries. The areas are called Fire Danger Rating Areas (FDRA). The agency previously based fire ratings on county boundaries.
In addition to the Methow area, DNR increased fire danger ratings for the Chelan, Foothills, Highlands, Kaniksu, Lower Basin, Lower Yakama, Upper Basin, Upper Yakama and Valley FDRAs. A map of the areas is available on the department website.
“We have dry landscapes, it’s as dry as it can typically be in mid-August,” DNR spokesperson Janet Pearce said last week as temperatures in some parts of eastern Washington approached 90 degrees. “This is alarming, but we have our fire crews on call … and ready for initial attack should any wildfires start.”
The recent stretch of warm, dry weather was shifting to more typical spring weather this week, with wetter-than-normal condition as well as cooler temperatures forecast for May 16–20 by the National Weather Service (NWS).
During times of heightened fire danger, Pearce said citizens should not hesitate to report possible wildfires. “We need people to be extremely cautious, now and for the rest of this year,” Pearce said. “If they see any kind of smoke it should be immediately reported by calling 911. There’s no need for them to worry about it being a false alarm, we’d rather respond to a false alarm than to have a fire grow out of control.”
Becoming the norm
Although the hot and dry conditions of early May seem unusual for mid-spring, it’s a pattern that’s “becoming the norm,” Pearce said. “Last year our fire season started a little earlier and this year on the west side [of the Cascade Mountains] we had about 50 fires in March and that’s not typical. On the east side, we’re very concerned because it’s almost all in drought-like conditions and that could make for a challenging fire year.”
Current conditions have prompted comparisons to 2015, a year of drought throughout Washington and an extremely active fire season that burned more than 1 million acres across the state. The NWS Spokane office compared current conditions this year to those of 2015 in a recent Inland Northwest Weather Blog.
That year had a very low snowpack, a record hot June in many areas, and a dry summer. That primed the land for large fires when dry lighting and windy weather arrived in August, according to the NWS blog. The Okanogan and Chelan Complex fires ignited in mid-August and burned almost 400,000 acres. The Twisp River Fire, part of the Okanogan Complex Fire, burned more than 11,000 acres and resulted in the deaths of three firefighters.
In its comparison of 2015 and 2019, the NWS said the snowpack was in far worse shape in April and May of 2015 compared to this year. In terms of precipitation, this year is drier compared to 2015 over the Cascades and northern Washington.
However, NWS said the combination of low snowpack and a dry winter/spring does not necessarily mean another bad fire season. The weather service examined factors involved in active fire seasons, including spring snowpack, October-May precipitation, the number of lightning-caused fires and temperatures in late spring and summer.
“The most important factor is May-August temperatures, followed by the number of lightning-caused fires. This makes sense as a hotter summer typically brings dry conditions and makes the grass and timber readily available to burn,” the NWS blog said.
Another important factor is how often critical fire weather patterns occur, NWS said. In 2015, the season wasn’t exceptionally active until Aug. 10, when “the critical pattern set up with dry lightning and several rounds of wind,” according to the blog. “So this summer we will be closely monitoring summer temperatures and watching critical fire weather patterns.”
Warmer than normal
Weather predictions for this summer in north central Washington call for temperatures to be warmer than normal, although the precipitation forecast “is more of a wild card,” NWS said. The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise predicts above-normal wildfire activity for western Washington and the northern valleys and mountains.
The combination of low snowpack and a forecast for warmer and potentially drier weather in coming months prompted Gov. Jay Inslee to issue an emergency drought declaration for the Methow, Okanogan and Upper Yakima watersheds last month on the recommendation of state water supply managers.
The drought declaration is based on NWS predictions of average streamflows from April to September. The NWS predicts the Methow River streamflow, measured at Pateros, will be 73 percent of normal for the April-September period. The Methow River is expected to have its 15th-lowest volume over the past 70 years. “That’s lower than 2015, and that was a pretty major drought year,” said Jeff Marti, drought coordinator for the Washington Department of Ecology.
Although there are genuine concerns about dry conditions, the main purpose of the drought emergency is to help farmers and fish managers plan for potential water shortfalls this summer and fall, according to Joye Redfield-Wilder, communications manager for Ecology’s central regional office.
Knowing about a drought early in the season can help farmers make arrangements to obtain water or decide what crops to plant, she said. The emergency lets Ecology prioritize emergency requests from irrigators.