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Fire Outlook: Be Prepared For Big Change In State Says Fire Weather Meteorologist

A fire weather meteorologist told Gov. Greg Gianforte and other state agency officials Tuesday, July 18, that Montana should prepare for a shift to a warmer and drier back half of the summer and expect wildfires beginning in drought-stricken northwestern Montana and moving further south and east as the state dries out into the fall.

The El Niño pattern that is all but certain to develop and last into next year could prolong the warmer and drier weather in Montana, and thus the fire season, and smoke from wildfires in Canada and the Pacific Northwest could also persist through the next few months, Northern Rockies Predictive Services Fire Weather Meteorologist Dan Borsum told the governor and others from state and federal agencies at Tuesday’s fire outlook meeting.

“We’ve been getting up to a point where we’re almost seeing a cascading increase in fire activity. We’re not there yet. And then we’ve got a heat wave coming in, so that’s going to change shortly,” Borsum said. “So that’s one thing we really want to stress is the message ‘be prepared for big change.’” DNRC Fire Protection Bureau Chief Matt Hall said 705 wildfires have burned 1,217 acres in Montana so far this year. He and Gianforte said firefighters had been extremely successful in their initial attack on the fires to keep them small and under control.

But 87 percent of them so far this year have been human caused, backing new research that shows the vast majority of wildfires in the West are caused by humans. The governor and Hall both said Montanans needed to remain vigilant as the state heads into the peak of the fire season by having evacuation plans and go-bags ready, limiting fuels outside of their homes, and limiting their activities that are prone to causing wildfires.

“As Montanans, we all play a role in preventing wildfires,” Gianforte said. “It’s critical that we all stay informed so we can protect our firefighters and communities this fire season.”

Gianforte and Hall each said Montana’s strategy to fight wildfires when they happen is to have an aggressive initial attack and more aggressive firefighting to follow. The state has trained more than 3,000 firefighters for this year and is staffing 46 engines, six helicopters and three fixed-wing aircraft for firefighting efforts.

Along with prevention strategies both among firefighters and Montana citizens, the goal is to put fires out as quickly and safely as possible while preventing them from spreading, the officials said. Gianforte said firefighters kept 95% of Montana fires to 10 acres or less last year during a mild fire season.

Borsum provided the bulk of the presentation, digging into data on drought, snowpack, current soil and fuels moisture levels and forecasts and how those factors could affect Montana’s fire season over the next four months.

He said the initial concerns will be in northwest Montana, particularly Glacier, Flathead and Lincoln counties, which he said were drier currently than in 97 percent of other years because of a year-long drought. He said those counties are missing 20 inches or more of moisture that they should have received over the past couple of years.

The snowpack in northwestern Montana was below average in most places this past winter, and most of it melted well ahead of normal after record heat in May — in some areas the fastest it has in up to 50 years, Borsum said.

That caused the fastest growing season in the area from mid-April through part of May that meteorologists have seen, he said, putting vegetation there on a quicker path to growth and then drying out.

The dry conditions are expected to spread south into areas like the Bitterroot and Helena valleys and along the Front Range in coming weeks and months, as medium and long-term forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation across most of Montana in the coming weeks and months, Borsum said.

“The real critical thing for everybody to be aware of is that we are just getting to the cusp ,and we’re going to see heatwaves through the end of the month, and that’s going to cause our problems,” Borsum said.

He said Montanans should expect the Canadian wildfire smoke that has moved in on and off since May to persist into September, but it could be replaced or worsened by smoke from other wildfires in the also-drying Pacific Northwest.

And Borsum added that El Niño could push warm and dry weather into Montana into October, which he said would only exacerbate the drought across the state and could make for an even worse snowpack next year – something officials discussing Flathead Lake levels also voiced concerns about last week.

“We would be worried that whatever we set in place now may be something that we continue to live with as we go into next year,” he said.

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