Steady, deep snow cover and recent rainfall lifted much of Minnesota out of drought and greatly improved conditions across the state.
The winter offered enough precipitation to help relieve one of the driest periods in the past 50 years, without bringing too much down that would overwhelm rivers and creeks to flood the state.
The snowmelt has thus far set up Minnesota for a type of spring that's been elusive during the past decade: normal.
"A decent snowpack helped tremendously," said Craig Schmidt, service hydrologist for the National Weather Service. "The entire western part of the state is now drought-free, and the soil moisture in a lot of the eastern part of the state is very, very close — a few millimeters from normal."
Severe drought remains in northern Minnesota near International Falls and in a pocket of the south-central part of the state near Albert Lea. About half of the state is still considered abnormally dry. Yet, even in the hardest-hit areas, conditions have vastly improved during the last three months and may get better if the near-term forecasts are correct.
"It'll take a little more rain, but with the snowmelt it looks like things will be improving over the next month," Schmidt said.
At this time last year, every part of the state was abnormally dry, and much of it was slipping into what would become the state's worst drought since 1988. Entire channels of the Mississippi River caked dry. Rock beds and islands along the Minnesota River appeared for the first time in decades. Households had to cut back their water use, and firefighters were already in the thick of a brutal season that burned more than 10,000 acres of forest and closed national parks and campgrounds.
"We are in a much better place this year than we were last year," said William Glesener, wildfire operations supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "But we're not out of it. Even though a big chunk of the state is still covered in white, we are in fire season right now."
Wildfires are worst in the spring. All of the dead leaves and branches that accumulated during the fall and winter and have been buried by the snow dry up in the sun and turn into ready-made fuel. Fire season typically peaks in late April and early May, dies down during the summer and picks up again in the early fall. Last summer was so dry that it never slowed down, and about twice the area as the state's long-term average was burned.
"The snow we got helped, but it's not going to be the end-all, cure-all," Glesener said. "We still are going to have issues this spring. The key will be if the weather pattern shifts and if we can get some timely spring rains after the snow is melted in April and May."