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'Flash Droughts' Are Fueling Wildfires in Montana

Lodgepole Complex Fire
Nate Hegyi

This is the worst fire season Montana has seen in years. The state is spending about $1.5 million dollars a day battling the blazes and meteorologists say they’re being fueled by something called a flash drought. 

As the Lodgepole fire was being brought under control in late July, Rancher Matt Bliss leans on a government pickup truck at a fire camp in Sand Springs. Wearing a yellow firefighting jacket, he tells Yellowstone Public Radio most of his nearby rangeland is completely burned.

“It’s tough to see it black," he says. "All the trees black, all the ground black, it’s a disaster area. It’s just so hard to see."

The four grass fires scorched an area the size of New York City, and like the other wildfires burning in the state right now, they were spurred by what meteorologists are calling "flash droughts."

“It’s a drought that comes on really quickly,” Tanja Fransen with the National Weather Service in Glasgow says.

Over the past few years, it rained and snowed a lot in eastern Montana. There were floods, storms,  and all the brush grew big and thick.

But then no rain came this spring. Temperatures hit triple digits and within a few weeks, all that brush turned brown and brittle. Now it’s so dry, Fransen says, a single spark from a horseshoe striking a rock could cause a fire.  

“It’s the driest in 110 years up in this area,” she says.

There are two flash droughts in the state. A severe one in eastern Montana that started this spring. A second, milder one is growing in northwest Montana.

Luke Robinson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula, says that town hasn’t seen rain in more than a month.

“As of yesterday, we were tied with the longest streak of no measurable rainfall since 1948," he says. "If we don’t get any measurable rainfall today, we will break that record.”     

It rained and snowed a lot in western Montana earlier this year. It was wetter than average up until the summer. But then July was the third warmest on record and August isn’t faring much better:

“Currently, the first week of August is the hottest on record," Robinson says. "So when you add that in too, that’s what’s making it so bad.”

Fransen says these flash droughts aren’t caused by normal climate patterns, like El Nino or La Nina. And while she’s not willing to say its climate change:

“Seeing more extremes is something people that probably need to be getting used to and work on some resiliency with that,” she says.

Those extremes include a really bad fire season.