CAMP SPRINGS, Md. -- At a news conference today in Phoenix, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in partnership with the National Interagency Fire Center, announced that despite periodic precipitation, NOAA's U.S. Spring outlook supports the potential for a significant wildfire season in the Southwest and central and southern Plains.

"Recent storms have eased the drought situation in many areas of the country, but the rain and snow arrived too late to offset the impacts from months of record dry weather across the Southwest, resulting in the continuing potential for a dangerous fire season," said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. David L. Johnson, director of NOAA's National Weather Service.

Weak La Ni&ntildea conditions, which developed this winter, contributed to significant drought concerns in the Southwest and the central and southern Plains.

"April through June is typically dry in the Southwest, so drought will very likely persist or even worsen until the thunderstorm season arrives this summer," said Ed O'Lenic, chief, forecast operations branch, NOAA's Climate Prediction Center. "NOAA's outlook also indicates a continued drought concern for the southern and central Plains."

Rick Ochoa, National Interagency Fire Center fire weather program manager, said his center's Seasonal Wildland Fire Potential Outlook for February through June 2006 "calls for an above-normal fire potential for Southern California, the Southwest, Southern Plains to Florida; and a below normal potential in the Northeast."

As of March 13, nearly unprecedented dry weather, unseasonably high temperatures, and gusty winds have already contributed to more than 13,000 wildfires, scorching in excess of 930,000 acres nationally since January 1, mainly in Texas and Oklahoma. This is well above the five-year average of 6,363 wildfires and 98,476 acres burned.

Drought affecting farmers and ranchers

In the southern Plains, the drought has had a major impact on farmers and ranchers. The lack of rain has dried up many stock ponds and led to abysmal pasture, range, and winter wheat crop conditions, especially in Texas and Oklahoma. Currently, severe to extreme drought extends across the Southwest into the southern Plains and northward into Kansas.

The U.S. Drought Monitor gives its highest drought rating, D4 (exceptional), to portions of southern Texas and eastern Oklahoma. Heavy rains including severe thunderstorms have eased short-term drought in Illinois, Iowa, and southward into Arkansas, but ongoing drought concerns may linger. The recent heavy rains and flooding ended dryness concerns over most of Hawaii.

The U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook calls for dry conditions persisting through June in the Southwest and the southern and central Plains, despite temporary improvement in some areas. Also, drought is expected to expand in eastern Colorado.

Some drought improvement is predicted for areas in the northern Rockies and northern Plains, as well as the Mississippi Valley and eastern Plains. Drought is expected to continue in North Carolina and possibly expand into portions of the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.

Outlook predicts precipitation across the country

For the nation as a whole, the U.S. Spring Outlook for April through June indicates below-normal precipitation for much of the central and southern Plains, as well as the Southeast and Gulf Coast. Above-normal precipitation is favored across the northern Plains and Great Lakes region as well as Hawaii. The remainder of the country, including Alaska, has equal chances of above-, near- or below-normal precipitation.

Meanwhile, above-normal temperatures are indicated for the Southwest eastward into the Southeast and the northwest islands of Hawaii; below-normal temperatures are likely for the northern Plains, northern Rockies and Washington State. Western Alaska and the panhandle may see above-normal temperatures. The remainder of the country has equal chances of above-, near- or below-normal temperature.

An equal chance, either for temperature or precipitation, is predicted when there are no reliable and skillful signals on which to base the seasonal outlook.

"There is a silver lining in today's announcement," said Johnson. "NOAA's National Hydrologic Assessment does not indicate a dramatic flooding potential this spring for the contiguous U.S."

However, substantial snowpack in the West has produced areas of above-average flood risk. Wet fall and near normal winter conditions have primed the Red River of the North, the boundary between North Dakota and Minnesota, for flooding this spring. Also, recent heavy rains across the Ohio Valley region and southern Mississippi have caused flooding on rivers, increasing the risk for future flooding.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency of the U.S. Commerce Department, is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of our nation's coastal and marine resources. Through the emerging Global Earth Observation System of Systems, NOAA is working with its federal partners and 60 countries to develop a global monitoring network that is as integrated as the planet it observes.

SOURCE: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration via PR Newswire.