The National Interagency Fire Center’s Predictive Services unit calls May the transitional period in the western fire season and points to “areas of concern” for the summer.
The overall pattern in the Pacific Northwest has been warm and dry, which the fire center said “may be problematic” for central and eastern Washington and Oregon. Diminished snowpack and intensifying drought – areas east of the Cascade Crest got less than 25% of average precipitation in April – prompted the center to forecast “above-normal significant large fire potential” for central and eastern Washington by July, according to its National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook issued in May.
In August, that large-fire potential expands to cover all of eastern Washington, all but the northwestern corner of Oregon, the Idaho panhandle, and western Montana.
Fine fuels at the lower elevations – like grasses and pine needles that ignite readily – will be above-average for the third consecutive year. Those fuels will dry and become receptive to fire by mid-June, according to the fire center.
In Okanogan County, there are areas that range from abnormally dry to some already in moderate and severe drought. The swaths of dryness generally run in north-south bands, with severe drought across the central part of the county, flanked by moister conditions on either side. Conditions in the Methow Valley range from abnormally dry to moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Several small fires were reported in Washington and Oregon in April, particularly in central Washington. The blazes were aided by unusually low fuel moisture, the center said.
While the mountain snowpack remains at or above normal on the west side of the state, it’s dropped below normal in basins on the east side of the Cascades.
Warm temperatures and little precipitation reduced the water in reserve in the mountains to 83% of normal in the Upper Columbia and Central Columbia basins as of May 12. Snowpack at some individual sites was healthier – it was still 91% at Harts Pass and 95% at Rainy Pass as of May 12, according to the National Resources Conservation Service Snotel report. All the snow has melted at Salmon Meadows near Conconully.
The outlook for May and the summer is for weather to be warmer and drier than usual.