Local News
March 30, 2016

Vermont’s warmest winter shifts flood risk, raises fire worries, say first responders

By Mike Faher, VTDigger.org

It’s been the warmest winter on record in Vermont, with mean temperatures 5 to 10 degrees above normal and snowfall several feet below normal statewide, the National Weather Service reported at a meeting in Brattleboro Thursday, March 17.

Such statistics meant that the gathering of state officials and emergency responders took on a different tone than originally intended. Rather the usual discussion of ice jam inundation, talk turned to earlier-than-usual brush fire risks and possible flooding from heavy rainfall.

In spite of the historically mild winter, officials said there still was plenty to talk about during the annual flood preparedness forums held throughout the state through mid-March.

“This year, knowing that the ice threat is so low, we still recognized the importance of springtime flooding. So we tweaked it a little bit,” said Jason Gosselin of the Vermont Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division. “We want communities to be prepared and know that these [governmental] partnerships exist and know who does what.”

The Brattleboro session, which also featured the state agencies of Natural Resources and Transportation and the Windham Regional Commission, followed similar meetings in Waterbury, St. Albans, Johnson, and New Haven.

At each, the National Weather Service has presented concrete evidence of the winter that wasn’t. “Spoiler alert: It was warm,” said Britt Westergard, a hydrologist with the Weather Service’s office in Albany, N.Y., starting her presentation. Westergard displayed color-coded maps showing statewide temperatures that represented a “pretty dramatic departure—not just a little bit above normal.”

She also detailed snowfall amounts that are two to three feet below normal in much of the state and three to four feet off pace in the mountains. Snowfall was 35-60 percent of normal amounts in most of Vermont, with even lower percentages in the state’s southern mountains. This time last year, Westergard said, 50 to 75 inches of snow covered southern Vermont’s higher terrain.

On Thursday, “I drove [Route] 9 all the way over here from Albany and didn’t see a lick of snow the whole way,” she said. “I was searching for any kind of river ice that I could find and was unsuccessful in that as well.”

“Basically, as far as when [ice jams] happen, now is generally it. Which I think is generally why we do these meetings this time of year,” Westergard said. But with little to no ice remaining, she said, “I think we’re really past the time of year where we could see significant ice formation.”

That means the traditional purpose of the state’s spring flood-risk meetings has been rendered mostly moot. But there were other risks to discuss. Westergard said that, overall, recent precipitation has been about normal—though it’s been falling as rain rather than snow.

“The stream flows really are above normal for this time of year,” she said. “So the greatest threat for flooding at this point would be a heavy rainfall.”

On the other end of the spectrum, a lack of melting snowpack also has led to unusually dry conditions in some areas. Westergard warned of “a possible early start to your brush and grass fire season.”

That struck a chord with Brattleboro Fire Chief Mike Bucossi, who was among the local emergency and municipal officials attending Thursday’s meeting. “Because of the low snowfall in the spring, all of the litter, if you will, from last fall—brush, leaves, anything that’s come off the trees—has sat on the woods floor and has had a chance to start decomposing and drying out,” Bucossi said afterward. “So it does raise our awareness. There were a few fires in the area last weekend.” He added, “Truly, we’re into springtime conditions now. This is one of the earlier times we’ve seen it.”

Most of the meetings throughout the state focused on the roles of various state and federal agencies and the regional planning commission during disasters. For many, the frame of reference for such discussions is still Tropical Storm Irene: When that storm spurred devastating floodwaters in August 2011, emergency plans were put into quick action throughout the state.

“The big thing in this room is all of the agencies that are represented and how well everybody works together,” Bucossi said. “It’s just good to get everybody into one room.”

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