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Hotter, drier forests ahead

by Alan Lewis Gerstenecker
| August 8, 2012 3:57 PM

Near-record rainfall for June and July has gone a long way toward fire suppression in the Kootenai National Forest, but according to its forest fire management officer the worst is yet to come.

According to KNF statisticians, the forest received 5.79 inches of rain in the June/July monitoring period, the second wettest period since 1954.

That rainfall, while suppressing fire potential, has enabled KNF fire-fighting resources to be dispatched to other areas in dire need, namely Colorado, said Charlie Webster the KNF’s Forest Fire Management Officer.

KNF firefighters and equipment, including 10 engines, eight 20-person hand crews, 29 fire-savvy officials and four aircraft, have responded to blazes in other districts. Now, all but one crew has returned home, and it’s just in time for what Webster is anticipating as warmer and drier conditions than normal ahead.

“The first two weeks of August are most important,” Webster said. “If we don’t get any rain, the fire danger increases dramatically.”

Webster, who has been with the Forest Service for 33 years, said historically these first two weeks produce the most lightning-caused fires.

To date, the KNF has had just 16 fires. Normally, through July 31 the KNF averages 92 fires and 160 annually.

Webster produced a document dated Aug. 1 entitled the National Wildland Significant Fire Potential Outlook, which considers such weather-making systems as El Nino, current drought conditions and fuel conditions.

The report for the Northwest states “significant fire potential will be above normal across the southeastern corner and below normal across the western and northern portions of the area in August.  … The effects of the cool, most weather from June and July are expected to linger into August on the west side of the Cascades and in northern Washington. Elsewhere, the danger indices are anticipated to approach or exceed typical August values.”

“Weather conditions can change quickly. We just need rain in the next few weeks,” Webster said.

Webster said, if fires occur, and they will, an early attack is paramount to limiting damage.

“Safe and aggressive initial attack is usually the best strategy to keep unwanted fires small,” Webster said.

“(A) Successful initial attack is often our best opportunity to minimize fire suppression costs and limit exposure to firefighters.   We mobilize firefighting resources, to help where needed, while working to ensure that sufficient initial attack resources are in place to provide for safe and aggressive initial attack of unwanted wildfires on the Kootenai NF,” Webster concluded.