Dry April triggers fire warnings

Mike Dunham
Bob Hallinen

Anchorage has enjoyed a dry break-up this year, with scant snow or rain recorded in April, according to the National Weather Service.

"There hasn't been a lot to fall out of the sky," is how Michael Kutz, a weather service meteorologist in Anchorage. "Normally we get a whole bunch more rain in April."

Normal, he said, is 0.47 inches. As of Tuesday, the NWS office on Sand Lake Road had recorded less than a tenth of that, 0.04 inches.

This may surprise people in other parts of the city who got splattered with rain Monday.

"That was one of those days we had scattered showers," Kutz said. "If they'd scattered over here rather than over there it would have knocked our numbers up."

But, he noted, we're nowhere near the driest April; 1938 and 1969 are tied for that record. Each is credited with a "trace," more like dew, over the whole month. Second place was 0.01 inches in 1931 and 1957. (Anchorage's official measurements were taken at Merrill Field in the 1930s.) As April 2014 comes to a close, and with sunshine predicted into May, we're tied with 1950 for seventh place.

Light snow, 0.2 inches, fell on both April 7 and 8, putting the month out of contention for the least snowy April.

As of Tuesday, the average high temperatures had been a little higher than normal, Kutz said, 46.7 degrees so far, compared to the normal high of 44.5. However, he added, the average lows have also been lower than usual, 28.6 degrees compared to the normal low of 29.1. That's probably due to the clear skies at night. "Lower clouds would help keep the heat in," Kutz said.

We did set one day record on April 22, when the high was 58.

"But that's not even in the top ten for the warmest days in April," Kutz said. Six of those top ten occured in one glorious week starting April 25, 2005, when the month ended with three consecutive days of 70 or higher and the all-time April high of 72 on April 29 that year.

Averaging the highs and lows and adjusting for the number of days, this April comes out at 37.6 degrees, Kutz said, warmer than the normal of 36.8 but far from the warmest average April temperature of 41.6 recorded in 1940 (again, at Merrill Field).

With plenty of moisture in the soil, the relative lack of April showers shouldn't hamper the greening up of trees and grass. However, the dryness of dead vegetation on top of the ground is a concern to Anchorage Fire Department forester John See.

"You can step on the ground and get your foot wet, but what's on top will still burn," he said. "We're already at a point where we've suspended permitted burns. We're not allowing campfires or burn pits on the ground to be ignited."

Barbecues and backyard portable fireplaces, those with a screen and at least a foot off the ground, are allowed, See said. And he's expecting the fire pits at local camping grounds to be okayed for use. The fire department is expected to issue an update by this weekend.

Those using the campground fire pits need to take special care to extinguish their fires, See said.

"When you drive through the campgrounds, without fail, you see two or three abandoned fires in pits still smoldering. Some years you can get away with that, but not this year. Never leave those fires unattended. Put them out."

Kutz also had some advice. "Enjoy the sun while we get it," he said.

For those wondering if the lack of rain is contributing to dust and pollen in the air, the Municipality of Anchorage will begin issuing air quality reports sometime in May, according to muni.org.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.