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Return to snowy, wetter weather welcomed by MT fire forecasters

Feb Lolo snow
Posted at 9:19 AM, Feb 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-09 12:52:28-05

MISSOULA — Mother Nature stepped in with a welcome to turn to colder, wetter weather just as concern is starting to build over this year's fire season.

While that's not the only factor determining how much smoke we'll see this summer, it's certainly an important one.

Montana's 2020 fire season turned out to be what forecaster Coleen Haskell calls a "late bloomer" -- a short, intense stretch in August and September, followed by a slow wind down, capped with early fall rain and snow.

“The West side of the Continental Divide, including western Montana, had adequate precipitation and we got that in a regular interval or about once a week," said Haskell, who is a meteorologist at the Northern Rockies Coordination Center (NRCC).

"We got enough precipitation in the rain through the fall, but on the East side of the Continental Divide it was considerably drier," Haskell added.

The early season storms actually help the following year, according to Haskell.

“Snowpack tends to compress or compact, that at the at least the fine fuels like the grass, and the brush. Get those leaves on the ground and get them composted if you will so that they are not available to burn in the spring during our windy season.”

But then the dry spell hit, despite a La Nina forecast indicating a wetter, colder winter.

“There wasn't the timing or the synchronization of the La Nina characteristics with the climate signal between the atmosphere and the ocean," Haskell explained.

"It took some time to sync that up. And so instead what we ended up getting was a very dry period. Some record dryness from November through January," she added.

The change has been pretty dramatic. The mid-level, south-facing slopes where so many fires start were bare and dry just last week.

But now there's a nice base layer of snow that helps knock the fuels down from last season but also traps the moisture at the surface, helping us as we go into spring and summer.

The initial fire season forecasts weren't all that gloomy, even before the weather flipped. The exception being Northeast Montana, which is extra dry.

But for the rest of the state, the cold and snow couldn't have hit at a better time.

“So now that we've got a little bit of snowpack on the ground and we're expecting more over the next several days with cooler weather, that should help take the edge of what we've been experiencing for the last several months," Haskell concluded.

Haskell says in addition to snowpack, spring temperatures and rainfall can have a huge impact on delaying, or diminishing fire season.