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

Fire Outlook Predicts Increasing Drought, Fire Potential

Montana Drought Monitor released: Thurs. June 3, 2021. Data valid: June 1, 2021 at 6 a.m. MDT
Brian Fuchs
National Drought Mitigation Center
Montana Drought Monitor released: Thurs. June 3, 2021. Data valid: June 1, 2021 at 6 a.m. MDT

Fire experts say the potential for significant wildland fires west of the Divide is normal for now but will grow and spread into tinder-dry eastern Montana later this summer, according to the Northern Rockies fire season outlook released this week. 

The fire outlook from the National Interagency Fire Center says widespread drought conditions persist and will likely deepen this summer in the Northern Rockies. The report says above-normal fire potential is expected to develop west of the Divide next month and expand eastward in August. 

NIFC’s outlook says critical drought conditions east of the Divide could lead to above-normal fire potential in August. Western and central Montana are in better shape. Long term forecasts, however, predict warmer and drier-than-average conditions in July and August, particularly along and west of the Continental Divide in Idaho and southwest Montana. 

The National Interagency Fire Center’s monthly fire potential outlooks help wildland fire managers such as Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation with planning and decision-making.

DNRC is responsible for protecting about 50 million acres of state and private land. 

The agency’s long-standing policy to extinguish small fires before they become major incidents turned into a key strategy last summer to help stem the spread of COVID-19 among firefighters. Smaller wildfires mean smaller numbers of people working shoulder-to-shoulder to fight fire. 

DNRC Deputy Fire Protection Bureau Chief John Monzie says this policy is mutually beneficial.

“Our mandate by law, and what our customers – the landowners, want – they do want us to do a rapid, effective initial attack to keep the fires as small as possible. And by doing that we also keep the risk and hazard to our firefighters down, and we keep the costs down.”

Monzie says during large incidents DNRC Montana will prioritize the health and safety of firefighters by social distancing and wearing masks when appropriate.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, human-caused wildfires account for over 80% of all wildfires in the United States. Unattended campfires, run-away debris burns and dragging trailer chains can easily spark a fire.

“I always ask, please listen to our prevention messages and try and follow them, religiously if you can,” Monzie says.

NIFC’s long-range fire potential outlook suggests September may usher in slightly cooler, less dry conditions which may lead to a return to more normal significant fire potential.

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Explore what wildfire means for the West, our planet and our way of life, with Fireline a six part series from Montana Public Radio and the University Of Montana College of Business.

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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