The end of May was rainy in Teton County, but that isn’t expected to change the federal drought forecast for the area and a potentially busy fire season.
“I’m still doing my rain dance,” said Jackson Hole Fire/EMS Chief Brady Hansen on Thursday. He said the rain the valley has received likely won’t move the needle on the drought forecast — and the associated fire risk.
“I don’t expect to see a major change. I expect to see a moderate change,” Hansen said. “We should’ve been receiving really measurable moisture throughout March, April and May. And until the last week of May, we got virtually zero.”
MountainWeather meteorologist and Jackson Hole News&Guide columnist Jim Woodmencey told the Jackson Hole Daily that the valley has received 6.49 inches of precipitation in 2021, compared to the historic average total of 6.81 inches by the end of May.
Of that precipitation, 3.35 inches fell in May, which Woodmencey said made up for a dry March and April. The county is only .32 inches behind its “normal” precipitation amount.
However, the snow water equivalent for this time of year in the Snake River Basin is low: 63% of the median from 1981 to 2010.
And, in its release Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor’s map of Teton County, which used data through May 25, appeared largely unchanged from previous weeks.
It showed that Jackson Hole and the surrounding mountains are facing moderate and severe drought, categorized as D1 and D2 drought conditions, respectively.
About 78.68% of the valley is facing severe drought, or D2 conditions. Only the northern parts of the county adjoining Yellowstone National Park and a western sliver that runs along the Tetons are in moderate drought, or D1, conditions.
Hansen said past years of D1 conditions have been fire-prone. That, he said, was setting him up for “a lot of concern.”
“The last time Teton County saw any D1- or D2-level drought declarations was in 2016. And that was the year of the Cliff Creek Fire, the Berry Fire and Lava Mountain Fire,” Hansen said. “Historically, when we do see those drought declarations, we’ll see fires that accompany those.”
Before 2016, 2013 was the last season that Teton County saw a D1, or moderate, drought declaration, the chief said. That season saw the Horsethief Fire and North Buffalo Fire.
Woodmencey, however, took a different tack: “If you’re trying to relate drought to fires, Teton County actually is OK.”
He acknowledged that there was fire risk, but thought it would depend on how things play out, pointing to the National Interagency Coordination Center’s “National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook” and the long-range forecast for a hot, dry summer.
The NICC’s resources show Teton County facing “normal” fire risk through July, and ”above normal” risk starting in August.
And the forecast for a hot, dry summer could have different effects, Woodmencey predicted. For example, if the Tetons don’t experience many thunderstorms, the potential for natural starts from lightning strikes could be low.
But then, he said, the human factor is a big concern, pointing to things like errant campfires and warming fires such as those that caused blazes in 2020: “You can’t control that,” he said. “If you could eliminate that, we wouldn’t have such a big problem when it’s really dry because Mother Nature isn’t really apt to start anything if it can’t produce any lightning.”
Hansen said he’s working with other firefighting agencies in the area including the U.S. Forest Service and Grand Teton National Park to “be prepared for what we are still predicting to be a busier-than-average fire season.”
“When you couple that with a busier-than-average tourist season, that keeps our ambulance busy,” he said, adding that the people who drive ambulances also fight fires. That can stretch the department thin.
“We anticipate certainly having our hands full,” he said.