SANDPOINT — North Idaho’s spring-like weather conditions that has people wearing shorts and riding bicycles in February is something Idaho Department of Lands’ Don Wagner wouldn’t mind seeing quickly change.
The drier the area gets, the more that IDL’s fire planner worries.
Wagner and others have good reason to be concerned.
Bonner County is almost bone-dry.
It barely recorded any noticeable rain in February, receiving only a scant 1/18 of an inch.
The .10 inches that dribbled down on Valentine’s Day was the biggest downpour the area received in a winter that has been the driest on record and has nearly decimated the region’s ski industry.
And with the wildland fire season only a few months away, Wagner does not like what the Climate Prediction Center’s forecast for the Panhandle is calling for through April: A below-average precipitation coupled with a 40 percent chance of above-normal temperatures that could play havoc to the region’s forests and keep fire fighters on pins and needles.
“Right now, it’s just a sitting and waiting game,” said Wagner from his Coeur d’Alene office where he manages IDL’s land/resource program for fire and fuels. “But it does not look good. Precipitation for the region is down a whole lot from last year.”
So is the Panhandle region’s water equivalency in its snowpack.
Wagner said a compilation of 12 Snotel sites starting from Clearwater shows it is 47 percent of average. Schweitzer’s Snotel site has a 63.8 inch snow depth that contains a water content of 19.9 inches.
“That’s very, very low for us considering last year’s water equivalency was average,” he said. “It doesn’t appear that we’ll have runoff to streams as we usually do in the spring. That’s not a good sign.”
What that also means to IDL in terms of forest health and North Idaho’s fire season is anything but encouraging.
“My concern for the forests is that the lack of precipitation will affect trees already under drought-stress,” said Wagner. “When drought-stress comes, they cannot withstand insect attacks.” And with a faint amount of precipitation forecasted for the next couple of months, Wagner fears that more trees in the region’s forests will be hit by a growing insect onslaught he says is going from an endemic to a higher population.
“We’re already seeing more insect activity in the Mullan area with the Rocky Mountain pine beetle attacking lodgepole pines,” he added.
But it’s a concern for the fire season which also worries Wagner.
“It’s too early to tell for sure how right now how serious it will be,” he said. “But I’ve looked at statistics from other dry winters, and how they related to the fire season. Surprisingly, spring and summer rains helped more than the winter snowpack.
“But if this (dry conditions) continue, we’re looking at a very bad fire year.”
Complied by the Climate Prediction Center, National Centers for Environmental Prediction, NOAA/National Weather Service in Camp Springs, Md.