Spring has officially arrived in the Wood River Valley, and with it the opportunity to add to the region's meager snowpacks is quickly waning.
The season is also prompting many locals to think less about the poor snowpack's effects on skiing and more about how it may contribute to the summer wildfire season.
One valley resident who's closely monitoring the developing conditions in the forests and ranges is Bill Murphy, the Sawtooth National Forest's north zone fire management officer.
"This year we're watching things close," he said. "It could be a busy season."
Just like they do every spring, fire officials are already taking steps to prepare for the coming warm season.
"We'll be ready," Murphy said. "We'll have our engines and helitack crews fully staffed."
For Murphy and other federal wildfire officials in the Wood River Valley, the summer of 2007 is the fire season that seasons are now measured against. That's the year that a hot, dry and gusty day in late August saw a fast-moving thunderstorm cause numerous lightning starts in the hills surrounding the valley.
One of those, a small wisp of smoke midway up the Warm Springs Creek drainage west of Ketchum, became a forest-consuming blaze stretching across more than 48,000 acres. A valiant response by wildland firefighters prevented the walls of flames from consuming any homes or the valley's beloved ski runs and lifts on Bald Mountain.
So, could the minimal snowpacks of the Big Wood Basin—which stand at just 62 percent of normal—portend a similar fire season in the making? That depends, Murphy said.
"The lack of snow does have our attention," he said.
While the poor snowfall received throughout Idaho is certainly worrisome, he said, just as critical is the next three months. How much precipitation the region receives and how warm it is during the months of April, May and June will have a significant bearing on the kind of fire season we can expect.
According to Jeff Hedges, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service's Pocatello office, long-term projections from the Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center in Washington, D.C., are calling for slightly above-average temperatures during the next three months. The climate prediction center is calling for equal chances of above- or below-average precipitation.
Hedges said people often mistakenly assume that means it's calling for normal precipitation conditions. He said it simply means it doesn't have enough data to make a prediction.
The only possible indication of what precipitation levels will be like are the calls for above-average temperatures. That often translates into drier conditions, Hedges said.
One bright note in the long-term forecasting is indications that the El Niño conditions that have dominated the Pacific Ocean this winter and are considered a culprit in the season's low snowfall totals in the northwestern United States may be waning. During a recent meeting, Weather Service officials told Murphy that Pacific Ocean conditions are returning to neutral conditions.
Murphy said one positive difference between this summer and the 2007 fire season is the summer and fall conditions that preceded them. This year, we're still benefiting from the effects of an abnormally cool and wet summer and wetter fall in 2009.
That wasn't the case in 2007, which was preceded by a hot, dry summer and dry fall in 2006. Those conditions, combined with light snowfall during the 2006-07 winter, plus an extra warm, dry spring, meant the Wood River Valley was experiencing August conditions by early June.
Murphy said temperatures and the amount of dry lightning this summer will also be important. If it's like 2007, we could be in for a smoky summer.
"It got hot early and it didn't stop," Murphy said of the 2007 season. "It was the triple whammy."
Jason Kauffman: firstname.lastname@example.org