Northwest News

Q&A: Meteorologist expects warmer, drier start to summer than usual, early start to fire season

It was a warm winter in Western Washington, and it looks like it’s going to be a warm summer, too.

National Weather Service meteorologist Andy Haner —who spends about half the year working as a fire weather forecaster — explained to The News Tribune what that means for the summer forecast, especially fire season.

Question: What’s the summer forecast?

Answer: Really, the story for this summer starts this past winter. With such warm weather in the mountains, that means they got a lot less snow. Places that usually get snow, such as the mountains, instead saw rain. You can build up a lot of reserved moisture in a snow pack. Rain flows into the rivers and goes away. Down in the lowlands, you probably saw it where you live, trees foliating earlier than usual. Basically the life cycle of a lot of plants started earlier than usual.

Q: What does that mean for fire season this year?

A: In June and July, (plants will) be ready to turn brown that much sooner. Up in the mountains the things that burn, the fuels, will be drying out early as well. Those things add up to an earlier start to fire season. If May and June end up being warm and dry, then we’ll be all the more ready to start fire season early. But if June ends up being cold and wet, then maybe we’ll get an on-time start. The climate outlook now calls for above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation (in June). Normally we think of wildfire season in Western Washington starting by, I would think, mid-July. We may actually be in fire season this year by the Fourth of July. Of course that would make Fourth of July activities all the more risky. Right now, the odds tilt toward more fire bans and bans coming earlier than a typical year.

Q: What sort of temperatures are we talking about?

A: Really from June all the way through September, we’re supposed to be averaging above normal temperatures. A normal late July high temperature would be right around 78 degrees, but I would expect to see more days this summer above 80 degrees than we commonly see, and probably more days above 90 as well.

Q: The joke is that summer in Western Washington starts after the Fourth of July, right?

A: Here in our office with all the meteorologists around talking, we often joke that summer (here) starts on the 12th of July. If you look at the number of times that we get measurable rain on each calendar day, there’s a big drop on the 12th of July. That is, a drop in the percent of calendar days that we get measurable precipitation.

Q: How much snow did we get this year compared with others?

A: Back in mid-April, a lot of our mountain sites only had about 5-40 percent of their usual amount of snow.

Q: Why was it such a warm winter?

A: We had a big ridge of high pressure over the Western U.S. for most of the winter. When you get high pressure aloft in winter, that’s warm atmosphere. Plus it steered all of the cold air, all of the winter storm systems across Alaska and into the Central and Eastern U.S. Obviously Boston had an epically snowy winter.

Q: Any precautions people should take this summer?

A: Just be aware of your surroundings and how dry they might be and what you’re doing with flammable materials.