Rapid snowmelt and a rainy April combined to melt off the central Cascades snowpack at a rapid rate, opening up mountain recreation areas for summer while also widening the swath of land susceptible for forest fire.

Since late April warm weather has lowered Central Oregon’s snowpack to 48% of normal, a steep drop from just a month ago when snowpack in the region was 115% of normal, according to Julie Koeberle, a snow hydrologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service of Oregon.

“Since we experienced rapid melt, it could lead to not only lower stream flows sooner in the season, but earlier drying of soils, which could mean earlier fire season,” Koeberle said Wednesday.

Fire danger in Central Oregon was listed as moderate Wednesday, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website.

“The fire potential increases as we dry out, and if it continues to be hot, dry and windy, we will see fire continue to spread,” said Alex Robertson, fire and aviation staff officer with Central Oregon Fire Management Service.

“Just because we had a significant winter does not mean we can be careless in any way, shape or form,” he said.

In addition to fire danger, an early snowmelt can also affect the quality of hiking trails and dirt roads enjoyed by outdoor enthusiasts, as mud pits can rapidly become rutted by overuse.

“The rapid snowmelt is freeing up recreation areas, including roads and trails, but at this point we are still in the mud,” said Kassidy Kern, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service. “Those soft areas will become rutted, and we don’t want to create extra work for people who repair trails due to the ruts.”

The Forest Service advises trail visitors to hike, bike and ride horses along the lower elevation trails to the east and south of Bend until higher elevation mountain trails dry out.

The heavy snowfall that swept over Central Oregon left a thick enough base at Mt. Bachelor to keep the mountain open until May 26. Snow depth is 56 inches at West Village and 97 inches at midmountain.

“The rate of melt has been faster than average, but not unprecedented,” Drew Jackson, director of marketing and communications for Mt. Bachelor, said Wednesday.

Jackson called the accelerated spring melt a “welcome development” for the ski area, as it can launch summer biking operations during the winter season finale.

“Had the weather not been sunny and warm recently, we likely would not have been able to offer biking and skiing together that weekend,” he said.

Snowpack in other parts of the state has held at higher levels. Lake County and Goose Lake basins have the highest snowpack in the region at 117% of normal Wednesday, said Koeberle.

Beneficiaries of the rapid snowmelt include Central Oregon reservoirs, notably Prineville Reservoir, which is at 100% capacity. Ochoco Reservoir stands at 85% full, and Crescent Lake is at 74% full. Wickiup, 17 miles west of La Pine, is recovering from near-empty conditions in November and now stands at 63% capacity but is already declining.

“Central Oregon irrigators should be in fairly good shape with careful water management,” said Kyle Gorman, region manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department.

The most impacted irrigator group is North Unit Irrigation District near Madras, whose supply comes from Wickiup Reservoir, Gorman said.

Urban areas are unlikely to see water restrictions this year, said Gorman, overseer of three of the 21 watermaster districts in Oregon.

“The city supply should be ample this season. They have systems built in to accommodate shortages, if necessary, and have backup systems for redundancy,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, mkohn@bendbulletin.com