Could North Idaho have another rough wildfire season?

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The spring of 2019 is starting off wet across North Idaho and the rest of the Inland Empire. Last week, on April 9, Cliff measured .90 inches of rain from a strong storm. That broke the record for that date of .70 inches set back in 1943. Hayden and Rathdrum picked up over an inch of rain from the storm.

The normal precipitation in Coeur d’Alene for April is 1.77 inches and we’re already over 2.50 inches. It’s certainly going to be a soggy month as more wet weather is expected through the rest of April and probably into May as well.

Despite the mild temperatures, there is still a lot of snow in the higher mountains. At the top of Silver Mountain, there is approximately 6 feet of snow on the ground. Its seasonal total is about 325 inches. At Lookout Pass, the summit has over 90 inches of snow. Nearly 450 inches of snow has fallen for the season.

With the wetter-than-normal spring season expected across the Northwest, predictions for the upcoming fire season are beginning to surface. Last month, there were a below-average number of fires across the country, though a few small blazes were reported in western Oregon, the Southwest and the Southeast.

On April 1, the National Interagency Fire Center issued their three-month outlook for the chances of wildfires across the country. Assuming that snowpack melting rates are normal or slower than average over the next few months, the fire season in Idaho is expected be later in the summer season. However, if we get an extended warm spell and the mountain snowpacks melt faster, then the timber and brush can sooner become more vulnerable to fires.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center Forecast, much of Idaho should have a relatively “normal” fire season through July. However, the chances for wildfires are high by June across southern Arizona, much of the western portions of California, northwestern Oregon, western and the northeastern portion of Washington.

Officials are concerned that the “abundant winter and spring moisture should translate to a heavy crop of fine fuels that will become increasingly receptive fire activity across the West from south to north in May, June and July.” California has already had two back-to-back massive fire seasons and officials are concerned for another one in 2019. The above-normal precipitation in early 2019 will undoubtedly lead to more brush and fuel for fires. If conditions become much warmer and drier than usual later this spring and summer, then it’s possible that California may have another rough season.

Another area of concern is Alaska. Average temperatures have been warmer than normal, and the early melting of snows could lead to an early fire season. But forecasts of near- to above-normal moisture in Alaska during the late spring and early summer may delay its fire season.

During this pattern of wide weather “extremes,” we’ve been going from very wet to very dry in a short period of time. With this early to mid-spring season forecast to be wetter than normal, Cliff and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the late spring and summer to turn much drier and warmer than average.

The past two summer seasons in North Idaho combined were the second-driest and hottest such periods on record locally in Coeur d’Alene since the inception of local record-keeping in 1895.

Only the fire-ravaged summers of 1967 and 1968 were hotter and drier than 2006 and 2007. Parts of neighboring eastern Washington and western Montana experienced their hottest and driest summers on record in 2007.

The wildfire season in the Far West in 2018 was the worst in recorded history. California experienced the single largest wildfire on record, the Camp Fire, which was also the deadliest and most destructive fire in history. The wildfire broke out on Nov. 8 when strong winds downed powerlines. About 153,000 acres were burned and destroyed nearly 19,000 structures, including 14,000 homes.

The National Interagency Fire Center reported that 8.8 million acres were burned, which was higher than average. The highest was over 10 million acres charred in 2017. However, the number of fires last year were lower than in 2017 and below the 10-year average of about 64,000 blazes. There were 58,043 reported fires last year, but in 2017, there were nearly 71,500 fires.

In British Columbia, the last two years were also the worst for wildfires. There was a total of 2.092 wildfires that burned over 3.3 million acres last year. That topped the previous record in 2017 when just over 3 million acres were burned.

According to the U.S. Department of Interior, it’s estimated that approximately 90 percent of wildfires are caused by humans. Unattended campfires, debris burning, downed power lines, discarded lit cigarettes and arson are the main causes. The other 10 percent of wildfires are started by lighting or lava flows.

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Contact Randy Mann at randy@longrangeweather.com

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