Snowfall does not determine fire season severity in Alaska

When I am asked to predict the severity of the next wildland fire season, I usually say: “Ask me in August and I’ll have a better answer”. If the weather during the fire season is hot, dry, and windy, you will have a busy fire season. If it is not, you won’t.

That is basically what meteorologists in Alaska are saying when they are asked about this winter’s weather which produced one of the lowest snowfalls there in the last 100 years. Here is an excerpt from an article in the News Miner:

FAIRBANKS — The lack of snow this winter doesn’t mean more wildfires this summer.

Despite one of the lowest snowfalls on record in more than 100 years, weather experts say summer weather, not the winter’s snow accumulation, will dictate what kind of fire year Alaska has in 2010.

Studies by the Alaska Fire Service in Fairbanks and fire experts in Canada show there is no relation between winter snowfall and summer fire danger, she said.

“It has more to do with the weather during the fire season,” Sharon Alden, a meteorologist at the Alaska Fire Service, said. “We could have a really low snow year and a really dry spring and then it rains the rest of the summer.”

Meteorologist Mike Richmond, who specializes in fire weather at the National Weather Service in Fairbanks, agreed.

“In the boreal forest of Alaska and Canada there is no relationship between winter snow pack and summer fire danger,” he said.

For example, during the winter preceding Alaska’s biggest fire season on record in 2004, when more than 6.7 million acres burned, Fairbanks received

62.2 inches of snow, which is only about 10 inches below normal.

“We had a near average snow pack and we had our worst fire season ever,” Richmond said.

The picture was much the same the following year, when approximately 4.7 million acres burned after an above-average winter snowfall of 77.4 inches.

Conversely, only 28 inches of snow fell at Fairbanks International Airport during the winter of 2006-07, the third lowest snowfall total on record since 1904, but only 550,000 acres burned in the summer of 2007.

Last winter, Fairbanks received 71.5 inches of snow and approximately 2.95 million acres burned last summer.

With only 24.8 inches of snow as of Friday, Fairbanks is on track for one of its lowest winter snow accumulations since the National Weather Service began keeping records in 1904.

Up to this point, there have been only two winters — 1918-19 with 12.0 inches and 1952-53 with 22.9 inches — in which Fairbanks has recorded less snow than this year.

Fairbanks is experiencing one of its driest winters on record, Richmond said. Only 4.54 inches of precipitation has been measured at Fairbanks International Airport since the start of July.

“This is the fourth-driest period in Fairbanks recorded history from July until now,” Richmond said. “We are in a drought basically.”

But it’s a matter of how dry it is in May, June and July that dictates what kind of fire season Alaska will have.

“It’s all short-term weather process driven,” Richmond said. “If we have rains every two or three weeks or closer together, we don’t get a fire season.

“We have to have periods of three weeks or longer of dry weather for there to be a fire season (in Alaska),” he said. “When we get a dry season, that’s when we get the fires.”

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.