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Drought Fuels Concern For Severe Fire Season

Greg Gianforte sits for a briefing. He's speaking with his hands.
Kevin Trevellyan
Yellowstone Public Radio
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte asks a question during his annual fire briefing on June 9, 2021. Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director Amanda Kaster sits in the background.

State and federal experts braced Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte at his annual fire briefing Wednesday for a potentially severe stretch of wildfires this year.

Gianforte said he’s been hearing from eastern Montana farmers and ranchers worried about the lack of rain heading into summer.

“All signs point to above normal fire activity in Montana this summer,” Gianforte said.

Meteorologist Colleen Haskell with the Northern Rockies Coordination Center said 600 mostly human caused wildfires have burned roughly 32,000 acres across Montana since January.

Haskell said an early spring cold spell kept moisture out of the ground and essentially freeze dried vegetation, potentially making it more fire-prone.

Haskell said low snowpack in eastern Montana also failed to break down flammable foliage, increasing fire risk.

“So, while the drought won’t produce as much fuel, grass, we do have that standing carryover fuel that we’re continuing to monitor,” Haskell said.

Haskell said reports of incoming heavy rain shouldn’t encourage Montanans too much and will only make a dent in worsening conditions heading into July.

“That heavy rain is very spotty, it’s very quick,” Haskell said. “And what we need are long duration periods with elevated relative humidity.”

Haskell doesn’t use the phrase “fire season” anymore, instead preferring to say “fire year” to reflect warming and drying climate conditions across the West.

A historic drought in the southwest will likely mean Montana firefighters will be asked to help out in neighboring states and smoke from out-of-state fires could fill Montana’s skies this summer.

Haskell, along with other local, state, tribal and federal officials, told Gianforte they are prepared to work together again during the 2021 fire season.

Montana State Fire Chiefs’ Association Chair Rich Cowger said lengthening seasons are leading to burnout among volunteer firefighters not used to months of work.

John Mehlhoff with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management echoed that concern for the long-haul capacity of his professional crews.

“Going in, we’re ready to roll. Coming out, depending on how long and hard and arduous this is, we’re going to wear people out,” Melhoff says.

The Northern Rockies Coordination Center predicts the areas west of the Continental Divide in Montana will see above-normal fire potential in July, while weather patterns are expected to extend that potential to the entire state in August. Severe fire conditions are expected to taper off in September.

Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America statehouse reporter.