Helena Independent Record: Fire experts warn Daines of worst wildfire season in years

BILLINGS — Montana is bracing for its worst wildfire season in years, officials told U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont.

Speaking to Daines during a Thursday fire briefing in Billings, federal and state agencies said that extremely early snowmelt in western Montana and increasing thunderstorms in the east are setting the state up for a tough wildfire season.

Western wildfire conditions are as bad as they’ve been in years. Eastern Montana, still green from spring rains, is now beginning to dry out with thunderstorms expected to deliver more lightning than soaking rain in coming weeks.

“We’re now in July. June, May, those were our wet months and they didn’t do what they needed to do to fend this off,” said Dan Borsum, National Weather Service meteorologist. “So the soil, the vegetation, relief is not on the way for them.”

In southwest Montana, where moderate drought conditions have persisted since March, Mountain snows had melted above 8,000 feet by the middle of June, three weeks earlier than normal, Borsum said. Similar conditions were reported across Western Montana.

Severe drought conditions were reported in 10 northwest Montana counties when the U.S. Drought Monitor was updated Thursday. All told, 26 of Montana’s 56 counties are experiencing severe to moderate drought. Portions of another 13 counties are abnormally dry.

However, for 340 miles across southern Montana, from Big Timber to Ekalaka, conditions were still normal for the year through June 30. The southern region has received more than a month of rain from monsoonal weather formations in the southwest United States. That weather pattern will persist but won’t be helpful Borsum said.

“The wettest part of the monsoon will be in Colorado, will be into Wyoming, but on the periphery of this you have a projection of more active thunderstorm activity than you would see in a typical year,” Borsum said.

The eastern part of Montana normally sees 40 thunderstorms between June and September. There were 22 thunderstorms in June, according to the National Weather Service.

Fire management officers for the Forest Service, Department of Natural Resources and Bureau of Land Management said the fire season began earlier than usual. At one point skiers were evacuated from Red Lodge Mountain because of an unusually early 300-acre forest fire. Rain in mid-May through June stamped out fire activity, but a return is possible as July progresses.

“We had a pretty dry spring. We had a run of very low moisture, a lot of wind and on March 28 they kind of culminated,” said Derek Yeager, DNRC Fire Program manager. “We had about five fires in 90 minutes that exceeded 1,000 acres in three different counties. Already this year, we’ve had more fires by twice and burned more acres than we have the last two years combined.”

Daines has spent the beginning of the Senate’s eight-day Fourth of July break touring Western Montana forested lands, where fire danger is extremely high. He said the Senate is trying to change the way wildfire money is appropriated so more gets spent on prevention.

“One of the challenges our Forest Service has is when they get to 100 percent of spending their wildfire suppression funds, they have to start basically borrowing and spending other dollars that could be allocated toward prevention and more active forest management,” Daines said.

Daines said the Senate is working on a bill allowing wildfires to be declared natural disasters, which would free up millions of dollars in Forest Service budget that could be spent on prevention instead of fire suppression.