Lack of rain, snow could precipitate dangerous spring

Posted: Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Late last fall when the Kenai Peninsula was awash with overflowing rivers swelled by intense rainfall, it might have been hard to anticipate the dryness experienced this January and early February.

But dry it has been compared to most years, according to the National Weather Service.

If the lack of precipitation -- rain or snow -- continues, will it mean shortages for communities dependent on wells and reservoirs? Will it mean a more dangerous fire season in April and May before green-up?

"It has been dry. We've been talking about it a lot the last few days," said Dave Vonderheide, a National Weather Service spokesperson in Anchorage, who said many people are wondering if Southcentral Alaska will get an early spring.

So far, he said, climatologists are sticking to predictions that in the long run there will be above normal precipitation and above normal temperatures through the spring. That's due to El Nino, a weather pattern in the Pacific that has influenced the jet stream in recent months, causing a high pressure ridge along the West Coast that's sending warm-air laden storms north toward Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea.

Sea temperatures also have been warmer than usual. The effect has meant rain rather than snow for Southcentral Alaska.

Over land, the typical February winter weather pattern -- cold and clear -- has not occurred. The bulk of cold air is crossing Canada and heading to the East Coast of the United States, he said.

This winter (as measured from Oct. 15 last year to Feb. 11 this year) has been the warmest on record in Anchorage in more than 80 years, according to weather service figures.

"We are not likely to seen any long spells of cold weather," he said. "It may turn cold, but it will be dry."

As far as precipitation goes, excluding the deluges of October, the winter has been the 13th driest in 85 years, Vonderheide said.

The lack of snowfall has left much of the peninsula with far less snow pack than normal for this time of year. But wells and reservoirs in the Kenai Peninsula Borough's major communities do not appear to be suffering any lack of water.

"We don't really have a supply problem," said Keith Kornelis, public works manager for the city of Kenai.

Kenai's problem, he said, is delivering its water from three wells near Beaver Creek to the city through just one supply main.

Steve Bonebrake, public works director for the city of Soldotna, said transducers in two of its four wells provide pressure readings, an indication of water depth. Those deep wells show no lack of water.

"We don't anticipate any problems," Bonebrake said.

In Seward, water comes from wells that currently appear to have ample supply. Seward has not experienced the dryness in the past few weeks that the western peninsula has, said Loyd Welch, water and wastewater operator.

"Actually, January and February have been super wet for us," he said.

Jim Hobbs, water and wastewater superintendent for the city of Homer, said the Bridge Creek Reservoir that supplies Homer doesn't depend on snow pack.

"Lack of rain hasn't been a problem," he said.

While the lack of rainfall, should it continue, may not cause head-aches for city water supplies, it could be a major factor for firefighters during the dry spring months, the peninsula's fire season.

"We are always prepared for an aggressive fire season, but with this year's lack of rain and snow pack, there is a chance of a greater fire season this year," said Jeff Tucker, fire chief for Central Emergency Services.

To meet the challenge, firefighters are training and crews are reviewing firefighting procedures, he said.

"For us, our main concern is the wild land-urban interface," he said. "Our guys protect life and property. We use fixed well sites, streams and lakes and other sources of water."

Firefighting in remote locations is the responsibility of the state Division of Forestry, which gets help from municipal fire services.

Rick Plate, fire management officer for the Division of Forestry in the Kenai-Kodiak Island area, said the lack of snow pack could play a role if March and April remain dry, especially because dry grasses can burn so rapidly.

"Obviously, people can look out and see there's no snow pack," Plate said. "If it continues like this and there is a drier spring, it could be a problem. We could have a really active fire season."

But the division anticipates active fire seasons every year. If a spring turns out to be wet, so much the better.

"At this point, we still have two months of winter-type weather, potentially. Anything can happen," he said. "Fires are almost always dependent on the weather in the spring and summer."

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