Missoula fire danger moves to extreme as heat lingers, conditions deteriorate
Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
Hours after warning that Smokey's arm could move with changing conditions, fire protection agencies across Missoula County on Thursday increased the fire danger to “extreme,” effective upon notice.
The Lolo National Forest did the same.
Fire officials on Monday will also discuss implementing Stage 2 fire restrictions, which would ban all campfires and off-road travel.
“It really is a response to trying to narrow down any of the human-caused fire potential that we can,” said Adrian Beck, director of Disaster and Emergency Services for Missoula County. “While the conditions are pretty ripe for going into Stage 2, we're not quite there yet. We'll have another conversation on Monday.”
The energy release component – the measure used to gauge a fire's potential to start and spread – is growing more intense with every passing day. Increase the danger to extreme suggests that fires can start easily, spread rapidly and burn intensely.
The county has already reported 61 wildland fires this year and 80% of them have been human caused. Controlling sparks is imperative to avoid a major conflagration, according to Ashleigh Burwick, the Missoula Unit fire management officer with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
“With conditions so dry and with no reprieve in sight, it's critical that the public exercise caution while recreating outdoors. Many of our human-caused wildfires have been abandoned or escaped campfires and illegal trash or debris burning.”
All outdoor burning has been closed in Missoula County, and fire officials may consider restrictions as early as next week. Beck said some surrounding counties are moving toward Stage 1 restrictions, though the conversation in Missoula County as to what's appropriate continue.
“Stage 1 restrictions tend to be confusing for the public and they're really hard for us to manage as a local government,” Beck said. “But we'll typically go into Stage 2 when appropriate.”
Beck said that could happen next week. The hot, dry weather is expected to continue into the foreseeable future with highs pushing 100 degrees again next week.
Missoula already has recorded five days of 100 degrees or more and a long stretch of highs in the 90s. The average for this time of year is 87 degrees. River levels have fallen, and some restrictions have been issued.
Despite the dangerous conditions, record heat and dry lighting, only a handful of fires have ballooned into a major incident this summer. Beck attributed that to responsive fire crews.
It's remarkable that we've had as clear as air as we've had, but we're continuing to monitor things,” she said. “There's been a lot of initial attack activity that, fortunately, has been taken care of initial attack and hasn't escaped those efforts.”