▶️ Does low snowpack determine fire danger? An expert weighs in

By SCOTT ELNES
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS

As a meteorologist who spent years in Alaska, one of the biggest misconceptions I hear is that winter snowpack determines summer fire danger. But that is not where the experts are looking.

“First and foremost we’re looking at drought and Central Oregon is one of the drought bullseyes,” said John Saltenberger, Fire Weather Program Manager for U.S. Fish & Wildlife. “We’re expecting that southwestern Oregon to be a potential hot spot coming for fire season 2020 and Central Oregon not far behind and Central Washington as well.

At least according to things that we see are shaping up right now. They’re going to be the first and possibly the worst during fire season 2020.

So yes, snowpack is a contributing factor in fire season, but it’s far from the top of the list.

“I think that snowpack has a handle on when snowpack has a handle on when fire season begins, but I’m not so sure it has any effect on the intensity of the fire season for a geographical area,” Saltenberger said.

That’s because, besides drought, the current conditions on the ground and in the skies play a major role.

“Regardless of what the preceding winter’s precipitation and snow were like, the main deciding factor is the weather during the fire season,” he said. “Particularly if we get into some spells with hot dry weather and followed by some lighting then we tend to have a lot of problems.”

So while you may want more sunshine these days, this weather does come with a silver lining.

“As radiant cool periods come in and we look at fluctuations in fire danger and we’re in a relatively benign pattern now with the cooler and wetter weather that we’ve had for the past few weeks,” Saltenberger said. “But even still as we get into drier weather we’re going to be looking for those droughty spots to be first and foremost on the radar for high fire potential.”

And keep in mind that about half the fires we see in the Pacific Northwest don’t even start because of Mother Nature, they start because of careless humans.

So our own vigilance can significantly reduce the fire season this year.

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