Officials: State should see less severe fire season
RENO – It’s considered a double-edged sword in the wildfire forecasting business.
Above-normal temperatures and drought-like conditions dry out the forests, grasses and shrubs, raising the threat of fires from the foothills of the Sierra to the high-desert rangelands of Nevada and the Great Basin.
And while the near-record snowpack in the mountains and above-normal precipitation across most all of Nevada this year is expected to postpone the state’s fire season well into July, that same moisture has accelerated the growth of grasses and underbrush that fuels the fires.
Those conditions – combined with three years of below-normal fire seasons that already have left many areas overstocked with fuels – are prompting the experts to caution that their predictions for a less severe fire season than usual in Nevada could go up in smoke in a hurry if temperatures heat up and the dreaded “dry” lighting makes an unwelcome appearance.
“It is a double-edged sword,” Nevada state forester Pete Anderson told The Associated Press.
“If you dry out early, no matter what the fuel crop is, you still have the potential for a lot of fire. If you stay moist like this (currently), there’s an increase in a lot of grass growth and shrubs,” he said.
“So it is wonderful for rangeland and wildlife habitat and all those things, and we sure need it because it has been dry for many years,” Anderson said. “But it will dry out sometime. If not this year, next year. And there will be that much more fuel loading.”
“It’s just all part of Mother Nature’s cycles,” he said.
In addition to record snowpack in the Sierra, the National Weather Service in Reno said rainfall has been abundant over almost all of Nevada since October.
Most of eastern, central and southwest Nevada exceeding 150-200% of normal, while even the “drier” areas of the state still remain above 100% of normal, the service said. Only small pockets of precipitation in northwest Nevada and part of Nye County were 70-90% of normal.
The National Interagency Fire Center said in its annual wildfire forecast three weeks ago that Nevada, Utah and Wyoming should have normal or slightly above-normal potential for significant fires. Experts at the center based in Boise, Idaho predicted the hardest hit states likely will include Texas and southern Colorado, both suffering through their worst drought conditions in a decade.
The latest U.S. Drought Monitor issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center at the end of April showed no drought conditions anywhere in Nevada, “which is a change from the areas of moderate to severe drought that have occurred in previous years across the state.”
“Spring showers have been plentiful especially across northern and eastern Nevada. Therefore, near or above normal temperatures should bring a healthy grass crop to parts of Nevada,” the center said.
“Considering all of these factors, the western Great Basin should expect nothing more than our typical fire activity during May through July,” it said.
Authors of that report, however, added the same caveat as Peterson:
“If abundant lightning occurs in late July into August, some areas of southern or central Nevada may experience above normal fire activity, depending on fuel conditions.”
Due to the heavy snow in the mountains, Anderson said higher elevation areas “probably are not going to have much of a fire season at all.”
Typically, the southern-most third of Nevada dries out in early June and northern Nevada follows a month later, he said. “But my guess is it will be mid- to late July before things dry out this year.
“You never know. It could go to 90 degrees all of the sudden and dry out in a few weeks and we’ll be in the thick of it. But I hope not. It’s nice to have some slower fire seasons,” Anderson said.
“The key will be if we get lightning – either with precipitation or just dry. Our biggest years in the past 10 years have been when there was plenty of fuel and we had a lot of dry lightning.”