‘February has been a big curveball right across our chin,’ but it does mean fewer slugs

Joe’s Gardens prepares for an end to a long winter

Joe's Gardens in Bellingham, Wash., opened for spring two weeks later than usual in 2019 because of record low temperatures in February.
Up Next
Joe's Gardens in Bellingham, Wash., opened for spring two weeks later than usual in 2019 because of record low temperatures in February.

Winter’s unseasonably cold weather and snow put a chill on some Whatcom County farms and gardens, and the recent forecast of a warm, wet spring and a hot, dry summer has air-quality officials and firefighters wary of another harsh fire season.

February’s chill means fewer strawberries, raspberries and blackberries this summer.

But it also means fewer garden pests such as bugs, slugs and weeds.

And a warm spring and summer could mean more fires, less water for farms and ranches, and fewer salmon for orcas and fishing.

“February has been a big curveball right across our chin,” said Johnny Burg, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Seattle.

Burg said long-range forecasts suggest spring will start cool and summer could be a scorcher.

“We might start out cold in March and then start to moderate,” Burg said in an interview. “For summer, everything’s looking to be above normal throughout the West. It’s looking warmer and drier – but that’s what summers are here.”

He cautioned that such long-term predictions aren’t always on the money.

Many meteorologists saw a warmer winter in store for 2018-2019, but no one forecast the February Freeze, he said.

Even though snow fell across the Whatcom County lowlands in early March, NOAA’s two-week outlook indicates a chance of above-normal temperatures.

Peggy Weston gathers plants to fill an order at Joe’s Garden in 2015, which opened earlier that year because of warm weather. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Gardeners getting antsy

At Joe’s Gardens in the Happy Valley neighborhood of Bellingham, cold temperatures kept workers from placing greenhouse-grown plants outside and delayed a second planting, said co-owner Nathan Weston.

“We like to transition our products outside, but with it being so cold we haven’t been able to do that,” Weston said in an interview. “We’re running out of space very quickly.”

Warmer weather will let Joe’s move some of the 300,000 vegetables, herbs and flowers it grows outside, he said.

“As long as it’s 30 degrees or above, we can protect them,” although that’s a labor-intensive operation, Weston said.

Cold-weary gardeners have been clamoring for spring plants — as have the local nurseries and markets that Joe’s supplies.

Joe’s opened for the season on March 4.

Weston added than the cold snap hasn’t been all bad, because it spells doom for some garden pests. “We should see less slugs, less yellow jackets. It kills weeds,” he said.

Skagit Valley Tulip Festival visitors walk through tulip fields south of Mount Vernon in April 2018. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Tulip bloom on time

Officials at the April 1-30 Skagit Valley Tulip Festival said the cold weather kept their signature spring flowers from making an early appearance this year.

“(The tulips) were going along quite impressively in January, and then the February snow and cold slowed them down,” said Cindy Verge, the festival’s executive director.

“It looks like we’ll have tulips blooming in April, not March,” Verge said in an interview. “The way they are in the fields right now, I don’t see any other way.”

Barbie Kraght, co-owner of Barbie’s Berries, fills flats of fresh raspberries in June 2008. This year’s the cold winter will likely reduce local blackberry production and eliminate the crop of early strawberries. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

Fewer berries likely

Berry grower Randy Kraght, co-owner of Barbie’s Berries in Ferndale, said the cold will reduce local blackberry production and eliminate the crop of early strawberries.

“It’s definitely going to be a winter damage year, especially for the big commercial raspberry growers,” he said in an interview. “It hasn’t been good.”

Kraght and his wife Barb Kraght farm about 35 acres of blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries near Ferndale.

He’s nonchalant about the forecast of a warm spring and a hot summer.

“Who knows?” he said.

herald smoke.jpg
Wildfire smoke fouls Bellingham air in 2018, making breathing difficult. Robert Mittendorf The Bellingham Herald

Smoky skies possible

Officials at the Northwest Clean Air Agency in Mount Vernon, however, are preparing for another hot, smoky season.

“We may see wildfire smoke (and even wildfires) in our region this summer,” spokesman Seth Preston said in an email.

“As you know, the problem the past two summers has been smoke blowing into the area from Canada, Eastern Washington, and other places. And that has been complicated by high-pressure systems that stagnated the air and trapped the smoke in the area,” he said.

Both 2017 and 2018 — which were marked by warmer temperatures and unseasonably low rainfall — also saw unusually smoky skies, Preston said.

Records show that Bellingham suffered four days in 2017 where the air quality was unhealthy for people in sensitive groups, such as children, the elderly and those with respiratory ailments.

In 2018, there were two such days and three days where the air quality was unhealthy for everyone.

Adding to the misery were temperatures at 80 degrees and higher — well above the normal August temperature of 72.

bad air.JPG
Air quality in Bellingham rose into the “very unhealthy” range for everyone on Aug. 22, 2018. Northwest Clean Air Agency Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Beating the smoke

That heat and smoky skies sent Bellingham-area residents to local stores seeking relief from the heat and smoke in the form of air conditioners, fans, filters, and face masks, said Donald Newman, floor manager at Hardware Sales.

“There was a concern in people’s minds. We went through quite an amount of the N95 masks,” Newman said in an interview.

He said the store will be ready if the smoke returns.

“Either way, we’ll gear up. It all depends on which way the winds blows,” he said.

feb 21 snowpack.png
North Puget Sound snowpack was 86 percent of normal on Feb. 21, and 83 percent on March. 1. U.S. Department of Agriculture Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Concerns over salmon, snowpack

Mountain snowpack, which is important because it feeds rivers and streams in spring and summer, improved markedly in February to about 90 percent of normal across Washington, according to the state Department of Ecology website.

“Farmers depend on this water supply to support their crops; fish need ample river water to survive; and many communities’ drinking water comes from snowpack runoff,” according to the Ecology website.

Ecology Director Maia Bellon tweeted in mid-February that while “Snowpocalypse 2019” was inconvenient for many Western Washington residents, it had a silver lining for the environment.

“… We jumped from 74 percent of normal snowpack up to 89 percent. That means more water for farmers, fish and drinking supplies this spring and summer,” Bellon said.

A measuring tool called the snow water equivalent shows the northern Puget Sound region, which includes the Nooksack River drainage, at 83 percent of normal.

Mt. Baker Ski Area measured 461 inches of snow through Feb. 28, about half of annual snowfall in 2017-18 and 2016-2017.

But if that snow melts quickly like it did with 2018’s warm spring, it could hurt salmon, said Rachel Vasak, executive director of the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association.

“This could create more flooding, which is hard for fish,” Vasak said — especially juvenile coho and adult chinook.

“Those adults are in the river during the summer and they need that clean, cold consistent water,” she said. “If we get a warm, wet spring we’re going to flush that winter accumulation out more quickly.”

Meanwhile, Canadian fisheries managers are predicting smaller salmon runs from Vancouver to Astoria.

Ocean temperatures are partly to blame, Fisheries and Oceans Canada said at its website.

A chum salmon swims upstream to spawn on Chuckanut Creek. If snow melts quickly this spring it could hurt salmon. Robert Mittendorf The Bellingham Herald

Wildfire fears

And all that points to another bad wildfire season, said state Department of Natural Resources spokesman Joe Smillie.

“We are looking at something similar to last year. We expect another busy summer, similar to last,” Smillie said.

“Last year we had a good snowpack, but we had a warm spring and it melted really quick,” he said in an interview.

“It was really dry on the west side” of the Cascades, he said, and an unusually high 40 percent of the state’s 1,850 wildfires last summer were in Western Washington.

Smillie said rapid snowmelt caused grasses to flourish in spring and then die quickly, leaving meadows full of “grassoline” that was ready to ignite and burn with ferocious intensity.

“We’ll be watching spring temperatures and precipitation — it’s a big influence,” he said.

Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.