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‘It makes me nervous,’ Whatcom fire chief says after NOAA spring forecast released

NOAAs spring 2019 flood and climate outlook for the United States

Mike Halpert of the Climate Prediction Center explains what's behind NOAA's temperature, precipitation and flood outlooks for spring 2019.
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Mike Halpert of the Climate Prediction Center explains what's behind NOAA's temperature, precipitation and flood outlooks for spring 2019.

Start stocking up on the eye drops and particulate masks, and if you haven’t installed an air filter or air conditioner yet, it may be time to start saving up — the Pacific Northwest wildfire season could be a doozy.

Following on the heels of two historically bad fire seasons in 2017 and 2018, conditions could be ripe for wildfires before the summer even arrives, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2019 U.S. flood and climate outlook for spring 2019 released Thursday.

According to that outlook, most of the Pacific Northwest, and particularly Western Washington, is expected to be warmer and drier than normal in April and May, meaning trees and grasses in the area could already be dangerously dry by the time summer’s heat arrives.

“It makes me nervous,” Whatcom County Fire District 1 Chief Mel Blankers told The Bellingham Herald. “Things are already dry. We had that long cold snap that lasted so long with the cold winds, and it dried everything out. Even now, we’re seeing people cleaning up things and fires getting out of control.”

NOAA maps show there is a 40 percent to 50 percent chance that Western Washington will have an unusually dry spring, meaning precipitation likely will be in the bottom third of what the region saw between 1981 and 2010.

Meanwhile, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is forecasting a 50 percent to 60 percent possibility Western Washington will see unusually warm spring temperatures, again meaning average temperatures likely will be in the top third of what the region saw between 1981 and 2010.

0321 Temps.jpg
Shades of red and blue show the chances of an unusually warm or cold spring (April-May) in 2019. “Unusually warm or cold” means seasonal average precipitation in the top or bottom third of the climatological record (1981-2010). Darker colors mean higher chances, not how warm or cold the conditions will be. NOAA Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

It all adds up to potentially dangerous conditions before summer arrives and a potentially difficult wildfire season for firefighters.

“When you get a fire that really labor intensive, you need a lot of people,” Blankers said. “That’s not something we have, especially during the day, when our volunteers are working other jobs.

“As we get busier days with fires, I worry about it burning guys out. These guys have families and lives outside of here, and they’ve still got to do all that, but it is physically and mentally exhausting when you have busy summers.”

Fortunately, Blankers said the area hasn’t seen many fires larger than 20 or 30 acres in recent years, though it’s certainly seen its share of smaller burns.

The county also has definitely felt the impact of smoke from large fires elsewhere in the region the past two summers.

British Columbia set a record with more than 3 million acres burned in 2017 only to surpass that record with more than 3.2 million acres burned last summer. Thick smoke drifted over the border both years. But smoke also came from fires in Eastern Washington, Oregon and even California, forcing many Whatcom residents inside for large parts of the summer.

0321 Precip.jpg
Shades of green and brown show the chances of an unusually wet or dry spring (April-May) in 2019. “Unusually wet or dry” means seasonal average precipitation in the top or bottom third of the climatological record (1981-2010). Darker colors mean higher chances, not how wet or dry the conditions will be. NOAA Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

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David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.

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