MISSOULA - A wet spring could be the best buffer to another hot, dry summer of wildfire risk in the Northern Rockies, helping to offset a fairly mild end to winter.
After a fairly robust start to a La Nina-fueled winter, snow and rain has been a lot harder to find since the first of the year.
But at least in Western Montana, forecasters with the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) say overall easing of the drought and near normal readings for moisture could forestall the intensity of the fire risk in late spring and early summer. While fires may hit sooner in eastern, and Southwest Montana — west of the Divide — the April 1 outlook is more optimistic.
Forecaster Steven Ippoliti says if the La Nina ocean current extends into early summer, it could make a difference, "it can. And just because it goes into El Nino doesn't mean you're going to get rain, it just means that the probability of rain increases."
In the about to be released April 1 forecast, one of the bright spots is the higher totals of "snow water equivalent", or how much moisture has collected in mid-to-upper elevations where the worst fires can burn.
"But if you look up to the north, we're still at 105% of the snow water equivalent," Ippoliti noted, referencing Northwest Montana and Northern Idaho in the most recent map. "And even into Idaho, 107, 90-to-107, 92 to 104 in some of the Bitterroot areas. And 90s even in West Central Montana. And then the driest area right now is Southwest Montana."
But that delicate dance between climbing temperatures and rain is tough to predict this year, with the cycle pointing to typical mid-summer impacts.
"It changes. It starts warming up and still at below normal spreads across most of our area," Ippoliti told MTN News. "Again, actually the entire area again. But as we get later into the summer we can see that starts backing off again."
"So really, it's the summer months that we're really going to watch and, you know, that can play a big factor. But if we keep that snowpack for a little while longer than we need to that can help things out quite a bit."
Last year's hot, intense heatwave in June extended the fire season, with some Southwest Montana blazes burning for months. We asked Ippoliti if that could happen again.
"So seeing that we're already seeing temperatures that are above normal in some areas, there wouldn't be too far-fetched to say, yeah, we could have another warm or hot summer again. Where it happens to be hot or above normal, that's still too hard to tell."
So the takeaway from this latest forecast? Don't grumble about spring rains.
"The longer we stay like this, the better off we are. I know it's not the best weather for people outside, especially come Spring, you want to get out. But you know, for fires this is better," Ippoliti said.