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Western Montana "dry out" has been rapid, and dangerous

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Posted at 9:52 AM, Aug 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-02 11:52:06-04

MISSOULA - The wet spring and early summer probably lulled many of us into a false sense of security about the risk from wildfires this year.

But MTN News checked into the numbers, and the experts told us the heatwave actually shows the forest is as dry now as it was in the last big fire year of 2017.

A lot of that is due to the hottest consecutive days Missoula has seen in 15 years.

"In 2017, we really didn't get the moisture and it kept going up," Lolo National Forest Fire Manager Colt Mortenson explained. "Now the moisture is gone and it's going up and we're starting to trend towards 2017 again."

That's not the news we expected to be telling you a few months back when rain and even snow showers were making weather headlines.

Mortenson says the break we got from the extended moisture in May and June has vanished.

"That wet summer probably gave us a week, two weeks, maybe even up to three weeks that where we would normally have fires where we didn't have fires, but now a lot of that vegetation and grass is changing. It's brown and it's burning."

A glance might give the impression of green, but the soaring temperatures are changing the reality, rapidly.

"Yeah, extremely rapid. With temperatures near 100°, the fuels dry out. Winds blow, they dry out really, really quickly. And it might look green, but you look underneath and the grass is dry, especially on the tall grass...our fires are starting to burn in the grass."

We've seen evidence of that, from the outbreak of fires over the weekend to the Moose Fire on the Salmon, where it's already bone dry. That blaze that's topped 56,000 acres in just two weeks.

Fire managers use equipment to actually measure the energy release component (ERC) for forest fuels.

But a simple test is effective for you to get some idea of how dry it is on your property, or when you're recreating outdoors. Simply take grass, and see whether it bends, or just breaks.

Since almost every fire we've seen so far was caused by people, we can make a difference with caution.

"Know what causes fire, whether it's machinery, abandoned campfires, fireworks," Mortenson advised. "And we're at the point in the season where all those could start a fire, so be smart out there and really, really help us reduce the number of human caused starts. We really can't change how how many lightning strikes we get and lightning fires we get. But the human-caused fires, we can really reduce those."