Average fire conditions are expected throughout most of Montana this summer, according to analysis given to Gov. Steve Bullock during his annual pre-fire-season briefing today. However, fire officials warn that climate change is continuing to lengthen fire seasons throughout the West.
Coleen Haskell, a meteorologist for the Northern Rockies Coordination Center, said northwest Montana is the only area of the state where forecasts call for above-average fire conditions this summer.
“That is one of the areas that we’re watching very closely," she said. "It’s a longer-term situation where we’ve had this persistent dryness.”
However, what wildfires in Montana actually look like during peak season can be very different from what forecasters expect this early in the year.
State officials didn’t expect the historic fires of 2017, when over a million acres burned. And when significant fire conditions were expected in 2018, the state ended up having a mild wildfire season.
But in the long term, Haskell said fire seasons are getting longer and the summers hotter.
She said fire seasons in the West are now 78 days longer than they were in the 1970s, and the average temperature in Montana is 3-4 degrees warmer in the month of July.
“The other thing that we are noticing is that the precipitation is as much as a third of an inch less for the month of July," Haskell said.
Related: Get the latest wildfire, air quality and fire management news here, on your radio during MTPR morning and evening newscasts, or via podcast.
John Tubbs, director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said the lengthening season is making it difficult to find firefighters to fill what have traditionally been shorter seasonal jobs.
“We’re going to have to go to legislators, governors and the president and say, 'This is more of a full-time job than it has (been) in the past, and we’re going to have to resource it. And it doesn't mean spending less,'” Tubbs said.
Gov. Steve Bullock said climate change needs to be addressed. He cited the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, saying carbon emissions across the world need to be curbed.
At the start of July, Montana is expected to have nearly $40 million in its firefighting fund, enough to cover the costs of a recent average fire season — a tab that runs just above $20 million.
DNRC Fire and Aviation Bureau Chief Mike DeGrosky says even an average fire season in Montana is a major event.
“A normal fire season in Montana means hundreds of wildfires burning tens, if not hundreds of thousands of acres, costing taxpayers millions of dollars," he said. "So whether it's a normal fire season or not, we need to remind folks that the citizens and the visitors need to be vigilant and careful with fire.”
Over the last 10 years in Montana, an average of 1,800 fires burned more than 360,000 acres each year, according to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center.
See the Fire Season 2019 Season Outlook here.