SALT LAKE CITY — According to the National Weather Service, Salt Lake City and large portions of Utah are experiencing higher than normal temperatures for this time of the year. And despite receiving a decent amount of snow over the last few weeks, Utah's snowpack levels remain below average.
Coupled with a multi-year drought, experts say the signs point to a very active wildfire season for much of the state this year.
"We're really setting up for a bit of a busy fire season this year if conditions don't change," said Shelby Law, a meteorologist with the Great Basin Coordination Center, which forecasts fire risk in Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho and Wyoming. "There's still a lot that can happen between now and fire season. Certainly, a dry spring, a warm dry spring is not going to help us at all."
According to Law, the outlook for spring and summer is "above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation."
Another factor contributing to increased fire risk this season is the state's current snowpack level.
"We have seen about three-quarters of the normal snowpack we would see for this time of year so far through this winter if you look at the statewide numbers," said Christine Kruse, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "So, it's definitely averaged warmer and drier than normal."
In order to get back to normal levels, Kruse says Utah needs a series of large storms with above-average precipitation.
"A normal winter, we'll have a couple storms a week; you get one to two inches of water," she added. "So, to catch up, you'd have to get a substantially higher amount above what you would normally see in the winter."
Utah is also in the midst of a multi-year drought with 90% of the state experiencing extreme drought, and close to 60% in exceptional drought. Both levels contribute to increased fire risk.
"We have seen an improvement in that number over the February storm cycle, but we're still at 60%," Kruse said. "Drought is more of a long-term issue than one weather pattern, and so that's something we're going to have to watch."
One of the larger concerns heading into fire season is the growth of Utah's wild grasslands. Cheatgrass in particular, which is a major fuel for most wildfires. Ironically, dry conditions in the winter and spring can weaken grassland growth, which could help to reduce some of the fire risk this summer.
"So, when we have a really dry period like we've had, that silver lining could be that we may not have the widespread grass crop that really leads to fast wildfire spreading," Law said. "Particularly in areas that butt up against communities."
For anyone heading outdoors in the coming months, the Great Basin Coordination Center recommends paying attention to fire restrictions and current fire danger. The extra precautions could help prevent human-caused fires in what is expected to be a really active wildfire season.