Spring in South Dakota had better live up to its reputation for delivering plenty of moisture, but even if it does, state fire meteorologist Darren Clabo says there's a potential for a large wildfires.
"Overall, I'm expecting an above-average fire season for this part of western South Dakota," Clabo said Thursday while outlining his predictions for fire conditions from April through mid-June. Clabo spent about 40 minutes outlining the region's climate history and reviewing long-range forecasts with firefighters and others during a seminar at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. This is Clabo's fourth annual fire forecast presentation.
The Rapid City Fire Department is bracing for a busy fire season, according to assistant chief for operations Rod Seals. The department has stepped up its annual wildland fire training to make sure firefighters are ready.
"We're fully gearing up for just as busy a season as last year, if not busier, and we're telling all of our employees that," Seals said Thursday afternoon.
In many areas of the city, tall grasses and dying pine trees merge with residential neighborhoods. Firefighters call those zones urban wildland interface areas.
Without heavy winter snows to pack last season's grasses and with no livestock grazing those areas off there are plenty of "vertical fuels" in the city, Seals said.
April, May, June and July are typically the region's wettest months, when the area receives 50 percent of its annual average of 21 inches precipitation. With the exception of the Northern Hills and northeastern South Dakota, most of the state had no appreciable snow pack this winter after a warmer-than-average summer that depleted soil moisture, Clabo said.
"My biggest concern is the southern Black Hills, southwestern South Dakota, down to the Pine Ridge Escarpment," Clabo said. "I'm concerned about western South Dakota. I'm concerned about the Missouri River Valley."
Last year, much of the Northern Great Plains and Rocky Mountain regions saw less than 50 percent of their average rainfall. Temperatures were also 3 to 5 degrees above average.
"2012 was the hottest year on record in North America. That's extreme," Clabo said.
And, there are indications that a warm spring and summer are on the horizon, Clabo said.
Although an improvement in drought conditions is predicted, Clabo is less than optimistic about the possibility of any significant drought relief. He points out that most of western South Dakota is in an extreme or severe drought, according to the national Drought Monitor.
"South Dakota is at the basement and you can't get any more droughty," Clabo said. "I'm being really cautious about where we are already at."
Clabo's concern is focused on the state's southwestern corner and Custer State Park, areas intensely stressed by last year's drought that have seen little or no precipitation for several months. The park has also been ravaged by the mountain pine beetle and other pests, he said.
"It's a very dynamic situation. There are a lot of changes going on in our forest right now," Clabo said. "Everything is influx right now."
Fuel conditions will also dictate wildfires, according to Clabo. Large wildfires are less likely in areas where livestock grazed off tall grasses last year, but in a forest littered with pine needles and dead or dying trees the risk is increased.
All across the region, it will take time and considerable precipitation to help drought stressed vegetation and soils recover. Warmer than normal temperatures further increase the loss of available moisture.
Wildfire activity typically increases in July, August and September, months that forecasters are predicting will see above average temperatures and below normal precipitation again this summer, Clabo said.
With the southwestern corner of the United States experiencing similar drought conditions, Claba warned firefighters that firefighting resources could be stretched thin again this summer.
That's something Seals is already starting to consider as he monitors local fire conditions daily.
Last year, RCFD deployed firefighters to fires in seven states, including South Dakota. A total of 16,186 work hours were spent fighting fires for other agencies.
"I was dumb-founded," Seals said after he finished tabulating the hours Thursday.
Rapid City's first major wildfire of 2012 was the Mallow Fire that burned 140 acres in early March. Conditions are similar this year, Seals said.