From pandemic to fire: Disaster officials in Missoula brace for 100 degree temps

The Horseshoe fire flares up near Dixon. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)

The National Weather Service on Wednesday issued the first heat advisory of the year for Missoula and western Montana, predicting temperatures will top 97 degrees or more over the next five days.

The forecast for some valleys in western Montana could see the mercury rise to 104 degrees while Missoula could hit 100 on Friday for the first time since 2018.

“Around Missoula, we’re forecasting upper 90s to 100 on Thursday and Friday,” said Travis Booth, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula. “Some of the lower valleys in far northwest Montana, around Thompson Falls and Libby, it looks like 100 to 104. That’s where the warmest temperatures will be.”

The summer of 2019 in Missoula was a cool one as far as summers go, with temperatures never exceeding 96 degrees. The last time Missoula reached 100 was the year before, which ended as an active fire season.

As temperatures climb, humidity levels fall and rain grows scarce, the inevitability of another fire season has arrived. The question is, how intense will it be and how well can local emergency officials juggle multiple fire emergencies on top of a global pandemic?

“This pandemic is challenging us in ways we have not been challenged and causing us to stretch our conventional emergency management practices,” said Adriane Beck, director of Disaster and Emergency Services in Missoula County. “But we have tremendous partnerships with the different agencies that are called upon to deal with the different types of emergencies we face in western Montana.”

The pandemic hit in early March, prompting DES and other front line workers to ramp up their response to something few had ever experienced. That was followed in May by another round of spring flooding.

Now, as July temperatures climb and the inevitability of wildfire nears, Beck said local responders are prepared to deal with something they’ve come to know well over the years.

“Wildlife season is one that we have a lot of practice with,” Beck said. “It’s one of the disasters we face pretty routinely. As the thunder is rumbling around me right now, it’s just a matter of time before those agencies are called to task.”

The National Weather Service issued its heat advisory early Wednesday, calling for soaring temperatures well through the weekend. On Monday, the county’s cooperating partners measured the fire danger as “high.”

“The indications are that by next week we’ll tip over into the ‘very high,’” Beck said. “Certainly the hot temperatures that are in the forecast, the 100s and high 90s for the next several days, will just increase that fire danger.”