Strong January snow in Colorado is giving hope for a less eventful wildfire season

Winter continues to be kind to Summit County and Colorado. The past few weeks' snowy goodness is providing a rare, rosier outlook for drought and wildfire conditions in the summer — if the timing is right.

According to the National Weather and Climate Center, snowpack is at 114 percent of normal in the Upper Colorado Headwaters basin, which includes Summit County. Strong snowstorms passing through the last few weeks and cold temperatures have kept the pack healthy.

"The snowpack to date is certainly an encouraging sign," said Peter Goble, drought specialist at the Colorado Climate Center. "Snowpack in Summit County has been above normal, if we were to get even average snowpack from now onward, we'll be in pretty good shape for water in the summer."

The National Climate Prediction Center is also forecasting above-average precipitation for the region over the next three months. Precipitaiton so far this winter has enhanced drought outlook, with the National Drought Monitor seeing improving conditions in western Colorado.

However, there are still two hard barriers before the years-long drought is broken. The first is the timing of the snowmelt. The other is how much of it will actually wind up in rivers and reservoirs due to moisture deficits from years before.

This year has seen a very healthy early snowpack. However, even with good snow, an early spring can mean much of it gets dried up before the hottest days of summer arrive.

"One concern we always have in the back of our minds for an early snowpack is that a longer warm season can deplete the moisture that the snowpack normally provides," Goble said. "That makes the region marginally more vulnerable to fires. From a drought perspective, you want a later snow melt for more water later in the summer."

That means the timing of the snowmelt is critical. In the Upper Colorado, snowmelt typically shouldn't start really rolling down until early May. In 2018, the snowmelt started two weeks earlier, in April — when snowpack is usually meant to peak. By the time June rolled around most of the snow was gone. That two-week difference dried up the snowmelt early and set up a devastating wildfire season across the West.

Even if the snow starts melting down the valleys and into the rivers on time, the thirst lingers from previous years, with a running tab on soil moisture that needs to be paid. Goble said that despite above average snowpack in 2017, the spring runoff that year turned out to be merely average because of how dry 2016 was.

2018 saw a bit of a perfect storm for wildfire conditions, with snowmelt beginning early and drying out well before summer really began. All of that dryness last year left a negative balance when it comes to soil moisture. So when the runoff does start in 2019, a lot of it will go into the ground and stay out of the rivers.

"One concern on the heels of bad drought year in 2018 is that we know when the snow melts we have some dry soil profiles to fill," Goble said. "It's probable a greater fraction of the snowpack will go directly into the soil. That's good for the forest of course, and fuel moisture, but also a bit troubling from a water supply perspective."

To avoid another nasty wildfire season, the bottom line is to hope winter lasts as long as possible, and that the High Country does not see snow start melting until May. For the moment, things look like they're on the ideal path.

"The short-term picture is encouraging, and the seasonal outlook also encouraging," Goble said. "I'm cautiously optimistic for a much better summer this year."

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