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Belt Firefighters Respond To Winter Wildland Fires

A burnt field with mountains on the horizon, photographed from inside a rural fire truck.
Belt Rural Volunteer Fire Department
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The Belt Rural Volunteer Fire Department responded to multiple wildland fire calls at the end of Janauary and early February.

This past weekend saw record warm temperatures and gusty winds, a recipe for wildfire. Unusual as it sounds, winter wildfires are not common but not unheard of.

Last weekend as the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring, the Belt Rural Volunteer Fire Department responded to calls for wildland fires, including a large, fast-moving in Judith Basin County and an active timber fire near Monarch.

But winter wildfires tend to be different than the typical summer fire.

"They’re generally a very short duration and are driven by wind events," says Bryan Henry, a fire weather meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

"What happens in these types of situations is you have a westerly or northwesterly wind flow. So you have wind…air coming over the Continental Divide and then dropping down. As it comes down slope that air accelerates, it warms. And as temperatures go up the air becomes dryer and the humidity levels drop and that dries out the grasses for a short duration," he says.

He says summer fires are much longer and happen after grasses and other fuels have dried out over late spring and summer.

Henry says the good news is the warm, dry weather has left and well below average temperatures are on the way with an Arctic front dropping down out of central Canada and more typical winter weather conditions for the next couple of weeks.

Kay Erickson has been working in broadcasting in Billings for more than 20 years. She spent well over a decade as news assignment editor at KTVQ-TV before joining the staff at YPR. She is a graduate of Northern Illinois University, with a degree in broadcast journalism. Shortly after graduation she worked in Great Falls where she was one of the first female sports anchor and reporter in Montana.