updated 3/24/2006 1:51:28 PM ET 2006-03-24T18:51:28

Mountains across the Pacific Northwest are packed with snow this spring, a year after bare slopes prompted warnings of severe drought across the Columbia River Basin.

The abundance of snow should ease pressure on farmers, hydropower dams and wildlife, and may even delay the region's summer fire season, officials say.

Water watchers are quick to point out that heavy snow alone can't quench all wildfire worries, but the snowpack levels are still a major improvement from 2005.

"It was so dry so early — Hell, we were having fires in early February last year," said Doug Sutherland, Washington state's public lands commissioner.

Snowpack averages are well above normal in Washington, Oregon and Idaho this year, according to measurements from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

By contrast, Idaho was the leader a year ago with an average snowpack at 55 percent of normal, said Jon Lea, an NRCS snow supervisor in Portland, Ore.

"There's no one that's blowing the whistle or complaining that they're going to have a bad year by any means," said Scott Pattee, an NRCS water supply specialist in Mount Vernon.

In all three states, federal officials say 2006 is one of the best snow years since 1999, when the Mount Baker ski area in Washington's North Cascades set a single-season record with 1,140 inches of snowfall.

If not for several rounds of rain in December and January, the ski area might have kept on pace for another snowfall record, Mount Baker spokeswoman Gwyn Howat said Thursday.

"There's just a lot of snow up there in the mountains right now, which I'm sure the farmers are happy to hear — the farmers and the salmon," Howat said.

That's also true in parts of southern Idaho, where farmers could see some of the best water supplies since 1999 or 2000, said Ron Abramovich, an NRCS water supply specialist in Boise.

"Some of them are going to be planting their full acreage, in crops where they can make more money as opposed to hay and grains," Abramovich said.

Washington's Department of Natural Resources, which leases about 1 million acres of agricultural land, is also optimistic about the farm forecast.

The generous snowpack could even improve the picture in Oregon's Klamath River Basin, where the tug-of-war between irrigators and salmon has grabbed headlines and spawned court battles. At present, the NRCS pegs the Klamath's snowpack at 150 percent of normal.

"It just takes a lot of the stress and strain off the water supply," Lea said.

Land managers, however, still warn that an overload of precipitation doesn't mean that wildfire danger will disappear.

The jolt of moisture actually can encourage thicker growth in the underbrush, leaving more material to burn when it finally dries out later in the summer.

"Drought or no drought, we're going to have a fire season," said Pat McElroy, Washington's state forester. "Particularly when the wind blows, everybody's got to be on special alert and be particularly cautious how they use fire."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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