Montana Public Radio

Above Average Wildfire Potential Predicted For Montana

May 6, 2020

Fire experts are predicting an above average potential for wildfires in Montana later this summer. The state’s existing normal to slightly-above-normal snowpack buys us time, but anticipated warmer and drier than average conditions could significantly raise the stakes by late summer. 

The Climate Prediction Center is calling for slightly cooler and wetter conditions east of the Continental Divide this month. Late May in Western Montana, however, could well be warm and dry. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, that could set the stage for a potentially busy late summer wildfire season.

NIFC says while north central Montana had a soggy April, most other areas in the region were drier than average. Lower elevations in western Montana are now snow free and greenup is well underway. Middle and higher elevations are generally still snow covered, but snowpack at all but the highest elevations is ripe and starting to melt.

If, as forecasters predict, Western Montana is hit with even warmer and drier-than-average conditions in late May that could accelerate the drying of vegetation. NIFC says spring dryness is particularly prominent now in northwest Montana.

Further east, fuel moisture levels are drier than average in north central and northeastern Montana, but not at the levels seen during the record fire season of 2017.

The National Interagency Fire Center says current climate modeling is calling for a possible weak La Niña developing during this summer’s peak fire season in late July and August. NIFC says that could bring the onset of warmer and drier than average conditions to the Northern Rockies.

The agency adds that there are hints a phenomenon known as the ‘North American Monsoon’ will be more typical this summer than last. If it pans out, that could mean a greater potential for more dry, late summer thunderstorms.

Wildland firefighters this year will be doing their high-risk job while simultaneously trying to avoid COVID-19 infections in their close-quarter work environment.