HERMISTON - Fields may be looking greener and rivers running a little higher but eastern Oregon could still be facing another year of drought and an early and extended fire season.

Figures from the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland show that as of April 1, snowpacks have dropped to 55 percent of the normal recorded capacities throughout Oregon. Areas of Malheur with 67 percent, Umatilla, 65 percent, and Grand Ronde 77 percent of the normal snowpack are faring better than the Mt. Hood area, which only recorded a meager 37 percent of the normal snowpack.

But eastern Oregon can still look forward to its fourth year of drought, according to a fire assessment summary issued by the predictive services branch of the NICC.

"It is especially evident in the John Day and Deschutes Basin area," Werth said.

However, although cooler and wetter than predicted weather during the last two months may help to preserve the snowpack a little longer, the additional rainfall experienced in April may do very little to lessen fire risk, Werth said.

"The wet cool weather in April has slowed snowmelt quite a bit," Werth said. "The benefit we're getting from this wet cool weather has a minor effect overall."

April rains may be good for local farmers but historically they have appeared to have little impact on the potential fire danger in forest areas. It is the June rains that often provide the necessary moisture to lessen fire danger, Werth said.

The mostly likely scenario for the region would show the snow packs melting two to three weeks early resulting in an "early greenup" even at the higher elevations. Depending on the amount of rainfall in June, fuel moistures would either drop following a dry month resulting in a slightly longer fire season or increase with a wet month and thereby shorten the season. The final seasonal assessment will not be released until approximately July 1 when all these factors can be weighed.

"There are good points and bad points," Werth said. "We're sorting them out. The next six weeks will be critical."

This past year was also an "El Nino" year and research done by Werth shows that this, too, could signify a severe fire season on the horizon.

NICC research shows that fire seasons coming after El Nino events typically result in a greater than average number of fires and acres burned on Forest Service lands.

Early snow melt, poor soil moisture and low stream flow are just a few of the indicators of the potential for a severe fire season, but even so that is no guarantee that one is imminent.

As always human error remains a major cause of fire and the unpredictable occurance of lightning strikes remain a very real wildcard in the ongoing gamble of fire danger.

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