Snowpack-fire season connection questioned

By MAKENZIE JOHNSON and JENNIFER WEBSTER/Montana State News

The conventional wisdom has been to equate heavy winter snowpack with a relatively mild fire season in the ensuing summer months.

But this may not be the case.

“Winter snowpack and even winter precipitation levels do not have a direct correlation to severity or length of fire season in the Northern Rockies,” said Ted Mead, the chief of the Fire and Aviation Management Bureau.

The 2012 season had the most fires and acreage burned with 410 fires and 523,231 acres. That year had the most acreage burned in Montana since 1910, according to the Billings Gazette. In June 2012, Bozeman saw .72 inches of precipitation, according to Weather Warehouse. The previous months were fairly normal, indicating that the early spring and winter precipitation was not a factor in the number or intensity of fires during 2012.

In the 2013 season, only 12,307 acres were burned by a total of 301 wildfires, according to the Fire and Aviation Bureau. The Weather Warehouse shows that for May and June, precipitation was very high – between 2-4 inches – and dropped down to a normal low during July and August, around the time when fires started popping up in Montana.

“What seems to matter most here from a weather standpoint is precipitation received in the mid-May to July 1st period,” Mead said.

The DNRC provides direct fire protection on 5.2 million acres in Montana, according to its website.

The 2010 and 2011 fire seasons were similar with 261 fires and 259 fires and 40,307 acres and 31,064 acres burned respectively, according to the Fire and Aviation Bureau.

Those years averaged high precipitation in June, but in July and August it dropped down to below an inch, according to the Weather Warehouse website.

For the past 30 years Montana has had an average of 15.3 inches of precipitation and 38.1 inches of snowfall, but snowfall regions in Montana vary immensely, according to NOAA national climatic data center.

The National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook, issued March 1, states a normal significant wildland fire potential for March through June in the Rocky Mountains.

However, the nature of this summer’s wildfire season is anyone’s call.

“It is not a simple or direct calculation as there are numerous factors; fire season prediction is very complex,” Mead said.

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