Spring rains ‘not enough’ to overcome northwest drought and wildfire risk, experts say

Spring showers have helped ease drought and wildfire risks in western Washington, but large swaths of the Pacific Northwest remain dry, if not drier than usual.

Last month was the 10th of the stateand– Wettest April in 128 years, according to the US Drought Monitor. And yet, more than half of Washington State is abnormally dry or experiencing moderate drought, nearly 25% is in full drought, and 3.9% faces extreme drought.

As summer approaches, the cumulative impacts of consecutive dry seasons impact snow accumulation, stream flow, and water resources throughout the region.

“To respond to the obvious, it’s been cool and wet in Washington,” Washington state climatologist Nick Bond said during a briefing on drought conditions in the Pacific Northwest on Wednesday. . Bond said the chances of a statewide heat wave of a magnitude similar to what the region experienced last year are low.

“All that being said,” he added. “Mother nature has shown us what is possible.

In the Columbia Basin, the past two years have been among the driest in state history. Extreme drought conditions continue in the lower basin and in Grant County and moderate drought persists in the upper basin and northeastern portions of the state. The North Cascades saw rejuvenating rains last month — which increased snowpack and helped delay seasonal melt — but the same cannot be said for eastern Washington and northern Idaho. , both of which recorded below normal rainfall.

While western Washington and Oregon generally fare better than areas east of the Cascades, summer droughts and wildfires are becoming more frequent and intense due to climate change.

According to Britt Parker of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Integrated Drought Information System and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder, about 68% of the Northwest is experiencing drought while 20% is experiencing drought. extreme or exceptional drought.

“This wet and cool April, however, is not enough to overcome long-term precipitation deficits and low snowpack,” Parker said Wednesday. “While the April rainfall helped with flow recovery and reservoir storage in some areas, it is important to note that we still expect the drought to affect much of the region, including the southern Oregon, parts of eastern Washington and southern Idaho.”

Despite unusually high rainfall in April, drought conditions of varying severity persist in central Washington, central Oregon and large swaths of Idaho.

In parts of Oregon, last year’s spring was the driest on record in the state. Just last month, Idaho state officials issued an emergency drought declaration for all 34 counties south of the Salmon River.

Dry conditions, high temperatures and stretched water supplies can set the stage for wildfires. And in the Pacific Northwest, they are becoming a growing threat.

Drought conditions reflect fire risk, Eric Wise of the North West Region Coordination Center said during Wednesday’s briefing.

The risk of large fires in the northwest is low through May, according to national projections released earlier this month, but that risk is high in central Oregon through June and could increase. expand to southwest Oregon and central Washington in July.

In Southern California, residents were preparing for an intense wildfire season when a Coastal Fire broke out in Laguna Niguel. The fire – which started on May 11 and quickly spread to an area of ​​200 acres and destroyed 20 homes – has been completely contained, Orange County officials said Tuesday.

In recent years, residents of western Washington have been smothered during the summer wildfire season by blazes on all sides in British Columbia, eastern Washington, Oregon and California.

The southwestern United States faces higher than normal wildfire risk in May and June, but it could spread south and west to Colorado before recovering in July. The above normal fire danger is expected to spread by July to southwestern Oregon and central Washington, and possibly most of the northwest by August.

More rain has helped the region’s snowpack which had shrunk during the first quarter of the year. The snow water equivalent would have reached or exceeded the average for Washington, central and northeastern Oregon by the end of April. Snowpack has improved in southern Oregon, but remains well below normal for this time of year.

Heat waves and wildfires are compounded by drought – and vice versa – in a violent cycle that continues to threaten water resources across the country.

“As we move forward with climate change,” said Oregon State climatologist Larry O’Neill, “we expect these types of heat episodes to occur somewhat more frequently than in the past.”

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