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Drought doesn't necessarily mean severe fire season

One might think with the worst drought predicted in years on the horizon that this summer will be a horrific fire season. Believe it or not, though, that is not necessarily the case.

At least that was the message delivered at the annual meeting of the Washington Incident Management Team. The incident management team is a group of emergency response personnel that respond to forest and wildland fires in the Western United States. The group meets annually and this year's convention is being held in Yakima.

The bearers of the summer fire forecast message were Greg Sinnett, chief meteorolgist with the Department of Natural Resources, and Bob Tobin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of Spokane.

"Hopefully our forecast is going to pan out for us," said Sinnett.

Many think snowpack, which dictates the summer water supply, has a lot to do with whether or not it will be a bad fire season, said Sinnett. But what actually serves as the model for how severe the fire season could be is the atmosphere. Sinnett said where the pressure systems that rule the hot weather in the Western United States set up during the summer will dictate the severity and location of lightning strikes, which usually serve as the catalyst for forest and wildland fires.

Despite a recent surge of rain and mountain snows, snowpack accumulations are still less than normal, said Sinnett.

"We have little to no snow," he said. "It is a pretty pathetic year."

Using as an example of how bad the snowpack is this year, Sinnett presented the group with 44 years of snowpack accumulation information from Mt. Rainier.

"It will probably be somewhere around 50 percent of normal at Mt. Rainier," said Sinnett. "We are going to be in pretty tough shape when we are looking at snow melt."

Sinnett said the summer water supply for Washington is going to be less than stellar.

"Things are not going to be too well," said Sinnett. "Especially in the eastern portion of the state."

Sinnett said even with the late surge of wet weather, it won't be enough to make up for the lack of heavy precipitation that usually occurs between November and February, which accounts for a majority of the summer water supply.

"We are well below normal," said Sinnett.

With the dry conditions that are expected to dominant this summer, Sinnett said he wouldn't be surprised to see the Columbia Basin area in Eastern Washington as a hotbed of fire activity.

Tobin is predicting the Western United States will experience above normal temperatures in the coming months with precipitation about normal. April through June should be warmer than usual with typical spring precipitation, said Tobin, while June through August should bring normal weather in Washington. Wyoming and Montana could be a hot bed of fire activity, said Tobin, based on predicted lightning storms in the West. However, the situation could quickly change, said Tobin. Tobin, reaffirming some early comments by Sinnett, said wherever the usual high pressure that rules the summer weather in the Western United States sets up will determine the severity and frequency of lightning strikes and thunderstorms in this side of the country through the summer.

Sinnett shared with the audience a graph the Department of Natural Resources utilizes to predict fire seasons. The graph, which has only missed once since 1958, bases in part its predictions for the coming fire season on past weather and land conditions.

"I would expect the next peak (fire season) to be in 2006," said Sinnett.

Sinnett told the audience even though there will be a drought this year, that doesn't always equate to it being a severe fire season, referring back to Tobin's presentation on how lightning strikes dictate fire patterns.

"It is really tough to look at snowpack and determine what type of fire season (it is going to be)," said Sinnett.

Touching on the lightning situation, Sinnett said that June through August is the most crucial time to watch for lightning strikes. Sinnett said during these months, Eastern Washington can experience up to 300 lightning strikes.

Another key factor to watch is the amount of precipitation that falls in the month of June. Sinnett said a lot of precipitation is needed in June to help ensure a less than active fire season.

Sinnett did caution people to be careful during the coming summer. He said conditions are going to be extremely dry over the summer months.

Washington State Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland, a former smoke jumper, announced the beginning of wildfire season on Friday, April 15. The state will be keeping a close eye on the dry conditions through Oct. 15, which is typically the end of the wildfire season. Due to the dry conditions, Washington's summer fire rules are in effect. For the next six months, people using motorized equipment in the woods must have approved spark arresters and follow fire safety precautions. These regulations affect loggers, firewood cutters, land clearers, road builders, bulldozer operators, off-road motorcyclists and others.

"Dry and unhealthy forests are continually a fire hazard and will be for many years," said Sutherland. "It only takes a spark to start a fire that can have catastrophic results. Practicing fire safety goes a long way towards reducing risk of expensive, disruptive wildfires that damage habitats for birds, fish and wildlife. These fires destroy homes and threaten the safety of the public and the firefighters who protect these forests and communities."

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