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Fire Season Comes Early In Eastern Montana

A photo taken from inside a truck shows a smoky scene of a water tender with a grass fire in the background.
West Glendive Fire Department
A mix of local and county fire departments, neighbors and businesses responded to the 3,200 acre Great Divide Fire north of Lindsay on Jan. 13, 2021.

Wildfire managers in Eastern Montana say fire season got an early start this year, with more than a dozen burns in the area.

Weather conditions around eastern Montana in January were far from typical, says Scott McAlvoy with BLM’s Eastern Montana Dakota district.

McAlovy, assistant fire management officer, says part of the problem was the lack of any type of snow cover on the ground and some degree of drought ranging from abnormally dry to extreme drought.

"And then with the wind event that most of Montana experienced, it caused power lines fires that in turn caught rangeland on fire,” McAlovy says.

An Eastern Montana Fire Zone report for January details 13 fires that burned more than 38-hundred acres. Eleven of those fires were human caused, including 6 from power lines as well as debris, equipment, campfire and even a structure fire.

According to the report, last year, the area only saw one wildfire in January, which burned less than an acre.

McAlvoy says the snow this month has improved conditions.

“I would say the better word for it is moderated the drought conditions that we have. We are still behind our snowfall and moisture for the season,” McAlvoy says.

What will the fire season look like for the rest of 2021? McAlvoy says Eastern Montana’s weather is too unpredictable to provide a reliable February forecast.

"I rely a lot on our spring moisture that we get in Eastern Montana. We get good spring moisture that will delay the fire season temporarily on this side of the state,” McAlvoy says.

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.