On Tuesday, Montana leaders urged people to be vigilant over the next few weeks, as wildfire danger could be on the rise across the state.
Gov. Greg Gianforte held a briefing at the State Capitol to provide an update on the outlook for fire season.
“It's critical that we all stay informed so we can protect our firefighters and communities this fire season,” he said.
Leaders say, so far, it’s been a slow ramp-up for Montana’s wildfire season, especially east of the Continental Divide – but that could change quickly, based on the conditions expected in the coming weeks.
Dan Borsum, a meteorologist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, provides predictive services through the Northern Rockies Coordination Center. He said fire risk currently varies significantly in different parts of the state.
“One is the northwest part of Montana, where drought started last summer,” he told MTN. “It actually intensified over the winter, and they sit really on the cusp of large fires being able to get real big, real easily, because of real long-term dryness.”
In the rest of the state, Borsum said the moisture from recent storms has been enough to slow fire season so far, but hot conditions could dry out vegetation quickly in the next few weeks. By August, his projections show higher than average fire danger in much of western Montana, and normal risk in the rest of the state. Even “normal risk,” however, doesn’t mean people should get comfortable.
“People need to be vigilant,” Borsum said. “Normal does mean that fire does occur on the landscape. The wrong fire in the wrong place could leave a big impression.”
Borsum said it now appears global ocean conditions are moving into an “El Niño” pattern, which in previous years has often been linked to warmer and drier fall and winter conditions in Montana. If that holds this year, he said that could lead to a prolonged fire season.
“A lot of times we see a rapid decrease in September, but other years we're still fighting fire in October – and this might be one of the years where October is much more in play,” he said.
Matt Hall, fire protection bureau chief for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said the state has seen 705 wildfires so far this season, burning 1,217 acres. Of those fires, 87% have been human-caused.
Hall said the slow start to the season has given firefighters time to get trained. DNRC has overseen wildfire training sessions for more than 3,200 firefighters, including 1,800 local responders and 350 Montana National Guard members. Fire crews from Montana have also assisted with suppression efforts in six other states and in Canada.
Hall also said now is a good time to make sure your family is prepared in case of an evacuation order. You can find information on how to get ready at MTFireInfo.org.
Authorities said, with fire danger on the rise, it’s as important as ever to reduce human-caused fires.
“We all have a part in making sure that campfire doesn't get out of control or sparks don't get off the swath or whatever it is that's going to start that fire,” said Gianforte.