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A winter without end followed by a winter that never started: No snow, warm weather could trigger early fire season

March 9, 2012

The perks of such a dry winter include being able to hike all the way around Convict Lake. This woman and husky seem to have found something fascinating to watch in the creek just below the boardwalk. Photo/Wendilyn Grasseschi

The year that winter never ended turned into the year with no winter at all.

Hard on the heels of Mammoth’s biggest winter on record (in terms of snow depth) came this winter; the second driest winter on record so far and one of the warmest as well.
 
Only the infamous winter of 1976-77 was drier, and even so, not by much.
 
And with March quickly spinning into April, the chances of even a “March Miracle” making a big difference are getting slimmer with each passing dry day.
 
“It will take between 20 to 24 inches of moisture for you to catch up,” said meteorologist Jim Wallmann, with the Reno National Weather Service. 
 
Assuming an average snow to precipitation ratio of one foot of snow to one inch of precipitation, the Mammoth area would need to see between 20 and 24 feet of snow by April 1 to catch up to normal (April 1 is the date most water managers call the end of winter). 
 
That’s possible, but not likely, Wallmann said.
 
“Normally, you get most of your snow in January and February,” he said. “By March, your average is about two inches of precipitation (two feet of snow), meaning you would have to get eight to ten times that this month.”
 
There is one possible change to the weather that might help, if not totally solve the deep snow moisture deficit, although Wallman said it’s still too soon to tell.
 
Australia and Indonesia are currently getting pounded by flood-causing rains and the pattern that is causing the havoc is headed our way. That’s the best hope for a so-called “March Miracle,” Wallmann said.
 
“There’s a pretty strong disturbance in the tropics right now that is about two weeks out that is injecting a lot of moisture into the jet stream,” Wallmann said. “It’s called the Madden Julian Oscillation and it’s manifested as an area of intense thunderstorms.”
 
But, and this is a significant “but,” the system is already a few weeks old and it typically lasts three to four weeks. That means by the time it gets here, it is not likely to last long.
 
Another factor that could mitigate the system is the fact that the jet stream tends to move further north during March than it might be in mid-winter.
 
That could keep the full brunt of the system north of California and the Central Sierra, where Mammoth lies.
 
“Normally we would get this pattern in the winter. It’s one of those patterns that brings us some of our biggest storms, but this time, it will come in later and that is adding to the uncertainty,” Wallmann said.
 
There is at least one smaller storm in the near future; next week around Thursday and Friday. That storm might bring about a foot of snow to Mammoth. But it won’t be much more, Wallmann said. Like so many of the storms this winter, the brunt of the storm will hit north of Mammoth and the Sierra, slamming into Washington and Oregon and leaving California and northeastern Nevada dry, dry, dry.
 
To add to the bad news, this winter has been warm—very warm.
 
“It’s been about 2 to 4 degrees warmer than normal for the past three months,” he said. 
 
That might not sound like much, and it wouldn’t be if it was only for a month, but to a meteorologist, the fact that the temps have increased so much over such a long period of time is worth paying attention to.
 
“That’s significant,” Wallman said. “That’s very significant.”
 
He said the warmth has forced plants like sagebrush to begin greening now; a month early. Here in Mammoth, the story is the same; willows that normally show their furred catkin faces in April are out right now.
 
On the ground, the warmth and dryness translate to at least one big, red flag; a sharp increase in fire danger.
 
The fire danger issue comes from the fact that the warm, dry weather of the past winter has made all the fuels that carry fire drier than normal; much drier. The warmth has also forced plants to begin greening sooner, meaning they will dry out sooner and thus, the fire season could start sooner.
 
To add insult to injury, most of the West is as dry as California, meaning fire resources will be stretched thin.
 
Then add the fact that the forests surrounding Mammoth are filled with an extraordinary amount of downed trees; a product of the extreme wind event that slammed into the region last Nov. 30. 
 
Even though the federal land managers will be working overtime to remove all the downed trees from places like Reds Meadow and high-use trails, the trees didn’t just fall where people hike or recreate. 
 
They are all over the backcountry, adding more potential fuel for a hungry fire.
 
These three things alone are enough to keep fire managers, like Mammoth’s Fire Chief Brent Harper, up at night.
 
Then add the fact that last spring was one of the wettest on record—meaning lots and lots of vegetation grew and covered the ground—and sleepless nights become nightmares.
 
“It’s like the perfect storm for fire,” Harper said.
 
Why? Because all the vegetation that grew last year; the grasses and flowers and shrubs, are still out there. But they are dried out from the warm and dry winter, the prefect tinder for fires. They also carpet the ground in thick, uninterrupted mats and the thick carpet carries fire better than a sparse, mosaic of vegetation would.
 
“It’s going to mean increased vigilance for all of us,” Harper said. “It has never been more important that your home is defensible. All it will take is a start and some winds. People need to be much more careful.”

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