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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Experts Optimistic About 2016 Northern Rockies Fire Season

Wildland Firefighters working on fire line on the West Fork Fish Creek Fire in 2015.
Wildland Firefighters working on fire line on the West Fork Fish Creek Fire in 2015.

Montana wildfire experts have peered into their crystal ball, and they like what they’re seeing.

"Right now we’re feeling pretty confident that we’re going to have an average fire season across the Northern Rockies region this year, as opposed to the well-above-average fire season that we had last year."

That’s meteorologist Bryan Henry at the Northern Rockies Coordination Center in Missoula.

"We typically have a severe fire season once every three years. Last year was our latest severe fire season."

According to the Forest Service, last year’s fire season nationwide was the most expensive on record. It cost almost $2 billion to fight the fires that burned almost 10 million acres.

Montana alone shelled out almost $11 million to battle wildfires that cooked over 334,000 acres.

Meteorologist Bryan Henry says this year, much of Montana has been graced with at least an average mountain snowpack.

"And with the spring outlook for weather and the projected stream runoff rate, we’re looking at a normal melting of the mountain snowpack this year which bodes well."

And according to Henry, that predicted normal runoff rate is key. Remember when temperatures skyrocketed into the 90s and low 100s for most of last June? That’s not expected again this year.

"That’s actually pretty significant in that there’ve been studies that have been shown to link the severity of a fire season to the timing of the melting of the snowpack in the mountains. If the snowpack melts sooner than average, there’s a significantly higher number of fires, and the fires also tend to become larger," Henry says.

Hardly anyone expected much good snow in Montana this year due to the predicted historically large El Niño weather pattern. El Niño has typically lead to drier-than-normal winters in the Northern Rockies.

"What makes it even more interesting to me is that the number of large weather systems that typically move across the region in the winter months was much less than average," Henry says.

Even though we had fewer of those large systems, a bunch of smaller storms managed to dump decent snow in the higher elevations.

Meteorologist Bryan Henry says we lucked out in another way as well.

"If you go up to Lolo Pass or some of these other passes you’ll notice that the actual snow depth is below average. But there’s a lot of water in that snow. We ended up having some rain events during the course of the winter that just poured water into the snowpack. The snowpack is like a big, thick brick right now."

March 1 Snow Water Equivalent Percentage of Basin Normal
Credit USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
March 1 Snow Water Equivalent Percentage of Basin Normal

Henry says this preliminary prediction of an average fire season in the region is good through July. The Northern Rockies Coordination Center will issue its official prediction at the end of next month, and that one will cover all of August as well. Meteorologists are pretty confident this fire forecast will hold through late summer.

In the end though, it’s just a prediction – not a guarantee.

Dick Mangan spent his entire career fighting wildfire in various capacities. He’s now a consultant who owns Blackbull Wildfire Services headquartered in Missoula. Mangan offers Montanans this advice:
"Don’t be dictated by the calendar. Just because it’s late March doesn’t mean we can’t have fires. With the changing climate and global warming, fire season’s going to come earlier, so the need for citizens to prepare themselves and their structures comes earlier this year than we would have expected 10 years ago."

National Wildfire Preparedness Day will be held this May 7. It’ll be recognized in Seeley Lake with wildland fire home assessments, smoke detector giveaways, and fuels reduction grant information, not to mention a free local barbeque.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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