Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) Stage 1 fire restrictions will go into effect just after midnight Saturday morning in northwest Montana, which prohibit any type of campfire or other burning outdoors save for the use of liquid fuel or propane stoves that can be turned on and off.

“The intent of fire restrictions is to reduce fire risk and prevent wildfires during periods of high to extreme danger by decreasing potential sources of ignition,” Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesperson Dillon Tabish said in a statement. “These restrictions will be in place until further notice.”

The fire restrictions will be in effect in Flathead, Lincoln and Sanders counties and most of the federal, state-, and privately-owned lands within and adjacent to those counties, Tabish said.

The restrictions ban people from building and using a campfire.

They also restrict open flames to stoves that use liquid petroleum gas or propane, limit motorized vehicles to designated roads and trails, and restrict smoking to within an enclosed vehicle, building or in a developed recreation site. Debris burning in northwest Montana is also banned in July, August and September.

People who violate the fire restrictions can be fined up to $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for an organization and be subject to up to 6 months in prison. Anyone who starts a fire can also be held liable for all suppression and damage costs.

Thursday’s U.S. Drought Monitor update showed the severe drought that has covered most of Flathead County for weeks expanded over the past week into southern Lincoln County and most of Sanders County. It also expanded eastward into Toole County and more of Glacier County.

Moderate drought also expanded south into about half of Ravalli County, into northwestern Powell County, and east into Liberty, Hill and Blaine counties, according to the latest data.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte earlier this week asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to designate drought disaster declarations for 11 counties in northwest and northern Montana, though the USDA did so for 10 counties in late June.

Officials said Thursday the drought is drying out fuels in forests and that above-average temperatures, combined with low humidity, wind and little precipitation in recent weeks, is leaving the area fire prone while other fires burn across the west and states compete for firefighting resources.

The Colt Fire, caused by lightning, has burned nearly 5,000 acres so far north of Seeley Lake and is 0% contained. There are more than 500 personnel working the fire.

The Bowles Creek Fire, another lightning-caused fire southeast of Hamilton, has burned 1,700 acres as of Thursday morning in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and Bitterroot National Forest, where fire danger is currently very high. And the Big Knife Fire was 148 acres Thursday, according to state fire officials. There are currently 42 active fires across Montana, state data shows.

As of last week, 87% of wildfires in Montana have been human caused, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Fire Protection Bureau Chief Matt Hall said in a fire season briefing for the governor, backing research published earlier this year that shows the vast majority of wildfires in the West are caused by humans.

Flathead County commissioners said in a news release about the upcoming restrictions that Flathead, Sanders and Lincoln counties have seen at least two to three new fires each day, half of which are caused by humans.

attachment-fire restrictions

The Kalispell area has seen less than two-tenths of precipitation so far this month, well below the average of an inch so far in July. Average temperatures have been nearly 3 degrees above normal for July in the area, according to National Weather Service data.

The snowpack was far below average in the Flathead Basin this winter and melted at near-record levels during the spring and early summer, which has also led to extremely low waterflows on the Flathead and other nearby rivers, and Flathead Lake levels to drop to historic lows, leading FWP to threaten the first fishing restrictions or closures in northwest Montana.

The Kalispell area has received half of its normal precipitation for the year so far – just 5.23 inches compared to the normal 10.5 inches.

The 8-14 day precipitation outlook issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration does show above-average precipitation for most of western Montana is predicted the first week of August, but temperatures are expected to stay above normal through that period as well.

Current monthly outlooks from NOAA show mostly above-average or average temperatures are forecasted for Montana into late winter but that temperatures will again be above average come next summer. The forecasts also show average-to-below-average precipitation through next summer.