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Montana, federal leaders warn of above-average wildfire season

HELENA (KPAX) — State and federal leaders say they’re expecting above-average wildfire activity across Montana this year.

Gov. Greg Gianforte received an update on the outlook during the annual fire season briefing in Helena on Wednesday. He was joined by more than a dozen representatives from the agencies that respond to wildland fires in the state.

Leaders say much of Montana is abnormally dry, with the eastern part of the state experiencing significant drought.

Northern Rockies Coordination Center (NRCC) meteorologist Coleen Haskell said there have been short-term benefits from recent rain, but the weather patterns have not brought enough moisture to significantly improve the long-term outlook.

“It’s just going to make a dent, or help out to buy us a little bit of time for the rest of June,” she said.

Haskell said they’re concerned about standing dead fuels, limited soil moisture and the possibility of severe weather and lightning this summer. She predicted we will see higher-than-normal fire danger west of the Continental Divide by July, then across Montana by August, with some improvement possible in September.

Leaders said Montana has already seen more than 600 wildfires this year, burning more than 32,000 acres. According to the NRCC, an average of just under 400,000 acres a year burned in Montana between 2011 and 2020.

The vast majority of the fires so far have been human-caused and officials noted it will be especially important this year for people to do all they can to avoid starting fires.

“We all have a personal responsibility to one another and to our communities to have measures to prevent wildland fire starts when working or recreating outdoors,” Gov. Gianforte said.

The agencies that respond to wildfires say, despite the worrying forecast, they’re prepared for the season ahead.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) has brought on more than 160 seasonal firefighters, to assist their full-time employees.

Also this year, DNRC received funding to add a new aviation crew, allowing them to keep one helicopter in Billings so they can attack fires in eastern Montana more aggressively.

Sonya Germann, DNRC’s Forestry Division administrator, said the predictions of high fire danger haven’t significantly changed how they’re getting ready.

“It’s like any other fire season,” she said. “We try to expect the unexpected and prepare for any type of condition.”

John Mehlhoff with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) said fire crews are prepared ahead of the summer, but that a bigger challenge will be at the end of the season.

“Going in, we’re ready to roll,” he said. “Coming out, depending on how hard and long and arduous this is, we’re going to wear people out. That’s a challenge and a difficulty that is hard to plan and work through.”

Because other states across the West are dealing with extreme drought this year, leaders say it’s likely Montana will need to share resources for fires in other areas — and that the state could again see significant smoke coming in from those fires.

Gov. Gianforte again emphasized his administration’s efforts to increase wildfire mitigation work across the state.

He has called for doubling the number of acres that undergo forest treatment – arguing more aggressive forest management is needed to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires.

Gov. Gianforte also acknowledged the loss of Tim Hart, a smokejumper in the West Yellowstone area who died last week while fighting a fire in New Mexico.

“This tragic accident reminds us that firefighting is a dangerous activity and we must be grateful for those who risk their lives to protect our communities, way of life and natural resources in Montana,” he said.