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Season snowpack stacks up short

Photo courtesy of Klamath National Forest | Feb. 1 snow survey results for the Scott River sub-basin.

A series of bluebird days stalled early winter storm momentum, dashing hopes for a reprieve from two dry years, with less than six weeks left until spring.

Snow surveys completed Feb. 1 on the Klamath National Forest showed that despite significant late-December and early-January storms, a subsequent lack of precipitation and warm midday temperatures decreased the snowpack to below the long-term seasonal average at all survey sites.

The February survey documented snowpack at 62% of the historical average snow depth, and 58% of the historical average snow water equivalent. Snowpack typically peaks by late March or early April, and snow surveys continue February through May, according to a news advisory on the Klamath National Forest website.

The surveys, part of the California Cooperative Snow Survey program, help the state forecast the amount of water available for agriculture, power, recreation and stream flow releases as the year progresses, according to the advisory.

In southwest Oregon, Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest staff warned that as the region sets records for days in 2022 without measurable rain, “things are starting to dry up out in the woods.”

“We know it’s early in the year, but please be careful with fire,” the agency said in a social media post Monday. “We have very limited fire suppression staff during the winter months, so a large fire would be difficult to staff at this time.”

Resources from U.S. Forest Service and Oregon Department of Forestry responded to a quarter-acre fire near Wagner Gap Feb. 4, believed to have been human-caused by a warming fire that was not extinguished, according to the post.

Between January and February, precipitation on the Rogue-River Siskiyou National Forest and neighboring forests to the south fell between zero and 25% of the average, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System, with temperatures an average 3-4 degrees hotter in Siskiyou County and 0-4 degrees hotter in Jackson County over 30 days.

According to Ryan Sandler, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service, a mashup of winter weather conditions led to a surprising lack of melt over the past month, yet implications for the coming fire season appear to mirror recent drought years.

“This season, November and early December were drier than normal, and then between mid December and early January there were a lot of winter storms, which brought Big Red Mountain's snow water equivalent to around normal,” Sandler said, referencing measurements from the site in the Siskiyou Mountains, located at 6,050 feet elevation about seven miles west of Mount Ashland.

Since early January, the snow water equivalent value — the amount of water held in the snowpack — has barely declined, he said. Factors include dryness (rain melts snow), cold nights causing frozen layers of snow to insulate lower layers, and the low sun angle in January and February and forest canopy keeping many areas shaded.

“Even on the lower elevation slopes, there has been less snowpack melting than would be expected with a month of dry weather in the forested areas of the Cascades westward,” Sandler said.

In sum, he said, February snowpack fell below the seasonal average relative to a normally increasing snowpack that crests around April 1 — the typical peak snow water equivalent at high elevations — though actual water content of the snowpack dropped insignificantly over the past month.

“Of course, this is still bad for the ongoing drought as we fall further behind as each dry day ticks away,” Sandler said.

This extended dry period will hamper reservoir filling in the spring, he said. Reservoirs in the Talent Irrigation District remain “bone dry at similar levels to last year at this time,” he said, and “it would have taken a near record snowpack season to get these reservoirs close to normal.”

Facing a third consecutive dry year, residents could expect another early fire season.

Sandler said grasses (fine fuels) drying out sooner in valleys, heavier fuels such as live and dead trees drying out to easily burnable, and early snowpack melt could force a sooner start and later end to fire season. The frequency and intensity of human-caused fires, lightning activity and summer heat also influence the season window, he said.

“Another drought year will certainly tilt the odds for a worse than normal fire season, but will not ensure it,” Sandler said.

Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.