After the pandemic winter kept Montanans more isolated than usual, a few hot days have helped dispel the COVID cabin fever. The downside is they’ve also worsened the drought that could make for a crispy summer fire season.
On Saturday, after a period of little rain and a few days with temperatures topping out in the upper 70s, the Missoula County Fire Protection Association raised the county fire danger to “moderate.” That means it’s dry enough that fires can start easily in open grasses and then spread quickly on windy days.
Most wood fires won’t spark as easily, so burning is still allowed with a permit. But the Fire Protection Association recommends not burning on windy days.
Missoula County fire departments have been busy already this spring helping to contain fires that escaped burn piles. Fortunately, the weather is supposed to turn cool again this week and rain is predicted for Wednesday into Thursday.
In Missoula County, a mid-May increase in fire danger is coming unusually early. But climate change is contributing to longer fire seasons. Fires burn more land on average each year as a result. Firefighters report seeing more extreme fire behavior, and wildfires recur after more often than in the past.
John Monzie, Montana Department of Natural Resources Conservation deputy Fire Protection Bureau chief, said his crews have been fighting fires since January in eastern Montana where drought is extreme.
As of a week ago, most of Montana is already in moderate drought conditions, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center. So all it takes is a few hot days, and temperatures on Sunday and Monday rose into the 80s in Missoula.
While many rivers in the state are running close to average for this time of year, several are unusually low when they should be nearing peak spring runoff. Rivers that are in trouble include the upper portion of the Missouri River above Fort Peck and the Powder, Little Bighorn, Big Hole, Jefferson and Smith rivers.
That could lead to a bad summer for trout that need cool water, because rivers with less water tend to warm faster. Water temperatures could easily exceed 73 degrees – a point where trout are easily stressed so fishing restrictions kick in – as we get deeper into a summer that is predicted to be warmer than normal.
Much of the southwestern U.S. is in even worse shape, with large portions of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico in “exceptional drought” conditions.
Last year was already a record year with more than 10.3 million acres burned in both forests and grasslands nationwide. With much of West seeing drought conditions worsen, National Interagency Fire Center experts are predicting an above-average wildfire potential to continue to expand northward into the Great Basin, Rocky Mountains, and Pacific Northwest throughout the year.
Already, five large fires have burned more than 14,000 acres in Arizona, California, and New Mexico, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
With that in mind, the Biden administration released its wildfire preparedness and climate resiliency plans last week. The plans outline strategies to promote climate resiliency across landscapes and communities, modernize the firefighter workforce and protect the wellbeing of wildland firefighters and incident responders.
“With so little room for error, we must remain steadfast in our commitment to wildland fire preparedness, mitigation, and resilience. To do so, we must confront the reality that a changing climate is fueling these fire disasters,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in a May 13 release. “The Interior Department will continue to leverage our valuable partnerships with state and local governments, Tribes, and the private sector to address and mitigate wildfire risk.”
Last year, fire crews had to battle not only wildfire but also the threat of COVID. A lot of procedures were put in place to reduce the chance of disease spreading among firefighters who have to work in close quarters.
Now that people are getting vaccinated and scientists know more about how the disease spreads, some of those procedures – such as cleaning equipment after every use with chlorine – are unnecessary. Monzie said DNRC protocol would probably be a bit less stringent this year, which may make firefighting a bit easier. But the best thing is for people to start fewer fires in the first place.
“We had to change some things around last year. So we’re looking at all those things. We have to be fairly agile because the direction of (the CDC guidance) does change. But our bottom line is we will be ready. And most importantly, we’ll make sure we’re mitigating that COVID-19 exposure risk to our firefighters,” Monzie said.
A few weeks ago, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte proclaimed this May to be Wildfire Awareness Month. The proclamation emphasized that most wildfires are human-caused, so Montanans are encouraged be careful with campfires or anything that could spark a fire. Residents should also make their property more wildfire adapted by clearing trees and brush away from houses to make a defendable space and replacing wood building materials such as shingles with something less flammable.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.