MISSOULA – With cool and wet conditions throughout the winter and early spring, the Northern Rockies fire season is not a top of mind talking point, but as last year showed, fire season can come fast and furious.
The long-term projection doesn’t paint a pretty picture, but we are at a good starting point.
“We do have our best snow packs in the mountains since 1997. All that moisture is to keep out fire potential at average levels through May and June,” said Northern Rockies Coordination Center Predictive Meteorologist Michael Richmond.
The sheer volume of snow in the higher elevations will likely delay the start of fire season even if we see a flash drought like we experienced in early July last year. But, the real guess-work begins with what happens after that.
“We would expect at least above average fire potential to return the latter part of July which would be a couple of weeks later than last year," Richmond said.
The cause of this is a transition from La Nina into what is called ENSO climatic conditions, the same transition experienced in 2017. This would bring a better chance of warm and dry weather. But even if this scenario does play out, there is an X-factor that could stave off another harsh year.
“2013 was our second warmest summer in this area and yet we had a relatively slow fire season, just because we didn’t have as much lightning," Richmond said. After all, it only takes a few summer lightning storms to wreak havoc. Avoiding those storms would be a huge benefit.
Beyond the likelihood of a hot and dry early summer, long range forecast models are projecting a shift from last summer, "this year it looks like we would keep those dry conditions longer through September and possibly even October," Richmond told MTN News.
An abrupt and early end to last year’s smoky summer appears less likely in 2018 and ultimately, a later start to the season may not mean a shorter season.
Predictive Service meteorologists provide an updated fire season outlook every month through June, and more frequently as the season progresses.