HELENA – Lewis and Clark County fire chiefs are warning the public about high fire danger, especially at lower elevations.
During the county commission’s meeting Thursday, Tri-Lakes Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bob Drake briefed commissioners on the conditions.
Drake showed data from fire behavior analyst Sonny Stiger. He reported that, after more than 25 consecutive days without measurable rain, moisture levels are critically low, especially in grasses and other light, fast-burning fuels. But because the county received more precipitation than usual in winter and spring, many grasses grew taller and denser than usual.
Drake said it’s inevitable that those grasses will dry out partway through the summer.
“No matter how much moisture we have, it turns,” he said. “We are at the point where all of our fuels are turning over. They’re all curing, and they become combustible.”
Fires in these dry fuels can be especially dangerous because of how quickly they move.
“It burns just like gasoline, and any amount of wind will carry it very rapidly,” Drake said.
Also, because the grasses are taller than normal, Drake said they are more likely to act as “ladder fuels,” carrying fires into the crowns of trees, where they can spread quickly.
Drake said there is still moisture in the soil, especially at higher elevations. That could help slow down fires in the forests, but he said it won’t stop grass fires from spreading.
“It’s way worse in the valleys than it is in upper elevations,” he said.
Drake said it’s important for the Lewis and Clark Rural Fire Council to keep commissioners up to date, since they are responsible for implementing fire restrictions when they are needed.
“Fire season is starting, and we want to make sure that we bring the commission along as we go,” he said.
Federal, state and local agencies are holding conference calls each week to determine whether to call for fire restrictions. Drake said the agencies generally try to place the same type of restrictions throughout a region, to make it easier for the public to understand what they should and should not be doing.
“The way we get voluntary compliance is educate the public on how dry it is, educate the public on where these lines are, and then we go from there,” he said. “We want to make so that it’s not confusing to the public.”
But he said it is a challenge for agencies to agree on restrictions, because conditions vary so dramatically.
“At 6,000 feet, it’s really green,” he said. “It will get dry, but in the valleys, it’s dry now.”
Drake said there will almost certainly have to be some type of restriction in the coming weeks, unless substantial rain falls.
“All these indices are going to keep growing, and the conditions are going to get worse and worse and worse,” he said. “At some point, we’re going to tip over and go to some sort of fire restriction. What that fire restriction looks like – that’s what we debate every Tuesday morning.”
Drake said, in most cases, thunderstorms are not enough to substantially change the need for fire restrictions. Because the moisture from those storms is generally very scattered, he said they can reduce the fire risk in a single location, but not the overall risk across the area.