NORTHERN HILLS — Winter in the Black Hills ain't over 'til the spring snowstorm flies, but experts are already tracking snowfall and moisture totals that may be indicative of a busy fire season headed into this spring and summer.
Snowfall totals in the Northern Black Hills this winter are above average, according to experts from the National Weather Service in Rapid City, but other areas in the Black Hills have not fared as well.
Meteorologist Scott Rudge said there is plenty of snow in the higher elevations, including Lead-Deadwood, Cheyenne Crossing, O'Neill Pass and into Newcastle and Sundance, Wyo. Snowfall in the lower elevations, including the Southern Hills and Black Hills plains, has been below average so far, Rudge said.
“There's a lot of snow in the Northern Hills,” said Rudge.
A National Weather Service observer reported 20 inches of snow on the ground 14 miles northeast of Upton, Wyo. he said.
“The snow has done really well in the Northern Hills, but the rest of us have had below average snowfall for this winter so far,” he said.
The 90-day weather outlook, according to Rudge, calls for above average temperatures and a 50 percent chance of precipitation.
“There is no solid signal as to which direction this will go,” said Rudge. “It's showing equal chances of precipitation.”
Black Hills National Forest Service Fire Management Officer Todd Pechota, who works out of the supervisor's office in Custer, said the lack of precipitation this winter is a concern, but pointed out that there's always a chance of a spring snowstorm that brings lots of moisture with heavy, wet snow.
In the short-term, Pechota said, lower elevations not impacted by snow face a high to extreme fire danger in the next several days.
“In the extended plains we're facing some very severe burning conditions over the next five to seven days without precipitation,” he said.
The seasonal drought outlook for Western and Northwest South Dakota classifies the Black Hills as “abnormally dry,” said Pechota.
“Over the time period through May 31, we're looking at some drought development being likely,” he said.
While it's premature to classify the current trend of above average temperatures and below average precipitation as a prelude to drought, Pechota said he is concerned that the conditions seem to mirror the climate a decade ago.
“There are correlations between what happened in the early 2000s and what has transpired from last July to where we're at now in terms of moisture,” said Pechota.
He reiterated that while a couple spring snowstorms could greatly decrease fire danger, he is concerned about what the summer may hold in store without significant precipitation.
Asked whether thousands of acres of ponderosa pine trees killed by the mountain pine beetle increases the risk of forest fires in the Black Hills, Pechota said the pine beetle issue is a “complicated discussion.”
“Certainly those trees that have red needles on them over a large area are of concern not only from a fire behavior perspective but being able to put people in the middle of a stand of dead trees on fire,” he said. “There's a huge increase in risk not only from the fire itself but from falling trees. It's something we're going to have to be very sensitive to.”
Pechota emphasized that the moisture content and likelihood of fire fluctuates with elevation, citing the cooler temperature in the shade underneath a closed canopy pine stand versus areas without shade.
Regardless of whether the Black Hills experiences a wet spring, Pechota said the key to eliminating fire danger is prevention.
He said the most important thing for people to remember is to prepare early.
He encourages everyone to utilize non-combustible roofing materials when building new structures, such as tin, concrete tiles, ceramic or Class A shingles.
“If you can't do that, manage your vegetation,” he said.
Pechota classified the vegetation management into three key zones, the first one being the creation of a fuel-free zone extending three to five feet from the foundation that eliminates ornamental bushes or plants that are highly flammable. It also means no mulch piles, woodpiles or pine needles stored within the fuel-free zone, he said.
The second key zone is 0-30 feet from a home, where steps should be taken to thin and properly space trees and to eliminate overhanging branches on decks, patios or porches, said Rudge.
Finally, depending on where a home is built on a slope, homeowners may want to extend the protection zone out to 100-200 feet, particularly if they are located in an area were fire could reach their home from below.
“They need to limb them up and prune their trees so the lowest branches are 10 feet above ground,” said Pechota.
He encourages homeowners to check out the Firewise website at www.firewise.org for additional fire safety tips.
For homeowners who have taken steps to eliminate fire hazards around their home, Pechota stresses the importance of maintenance.
“Once you make that investment in thinning your trees and doing all the things that are important, it certainly does require maintenance,” he said.
For now, Pechota advises everyone to be aware of their surroundings when they are out in the Black Hills, and to be mindful of how dry it is in certain areas.
Tossing a cigarette butt out a car window or onto the forest floor, target shooting and campfires have all ignited large-scale forest fires, he said.
“There's fire danger wherever there's an ignition source in the low country,” he said. “We just ask the public to be aware of their surroundings and how dry it really is.”