The fierce spring heat that fueled early wildland blazes may not be a prelude to another marathon Northwest fire season.
PORTLAND — The spring heat that fueled early wildland blazes may not be a prelude to another marathon Northwest fire season.
In the Pacific, a major shift from an El Niño warming to a La Niña cooling appears to be under way, and that could ease summer temperatures as well as fire risks, according to a long-range forecast from a meteorologist at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.
John Saltenberger, the center’s fire-weather program manager, said his analysis of past La Niña summers show they typically bring more moderate temperatures west of the Cascades in July, and for the whole region by August.
“The relationship is strong. When La Niña shows up, caps occur on temperature,” Saltenberger said. “ I think that has good news in terms of fire potential … I’m not saying no fires. I’m saying I don’t see unusual risk for large fires.”
Last year, more than 1.82 million acres burned in Washington and Oregon, triple the 10-year average in a season that destroyed and threatened homes across a wide expanse of the region.
During the peak of the fire season, more than 11,450 firefighters were mobilized. The total estimated costs for fighting large fires in the two states topped $600 million, the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center said.
Saltenberger predicts this summer season will be closer to an average fire year, as measured over the past 10 years, when some 600,000 acres burn in Oregon and Washington.
Concerns for another big fire year have been stoked by the early start to the 2016 season, with two separate forest fires this past week near Oso and Gold Bar in Snohomish County, burning more than 300 acres total before being contained this week.
And a National Weather Service forecast predicts above-average summer temperatures for much of the nation, including the Northwest.
But Saltenberger says recent weeks have seen a dramatic erosion of the El Niño, which is marked by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific that can have wide-ranging weather effects.
In its place, La Niña, marked by unusually cool ocean temperatures in that same area, is rapidly evolving, and that has prompted Saltenberger to develop his summer fire forecast.
“The El Niño is fading, and we fully anticipate it will be gone by this time next month,” Saltenberger said at a Thursday briefing.
An easing of summer temperatures would represent a turnaround from recent trends. In each of the past seven months, global temperatures have averaged the highest on record, according to NASA reports cited by Saltenberger.
In Western Washington, the trends included an unprecedented stretch of three straight April days of high temperatures over 80 degrees in Seattle, and two May forest fires.
Saltenberger forecasts that the rest of May will be relatively cool, and that the likelihood for above-normal temperatures will decline through the rest of the summer as La Nina takes hold.
Officials at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, which helps organize the federal and state response to fires, are hoping that forecast holds true. But they are trying to build on the lessons learned from this past year’s fire season as they ready themselves for this year.
Dan O’Brien, the center’s assistant director of operations, said relations between different firefighting agencies have been strengthened by the shared challenges of responding to this past year’s fires. He said that efforts were made to step up communications with local officials who have important knowledge to share.
“They can save you a lot of time because they know a lot of things. They can get a team up and running a lot quicker,” O’Brien said.