Various fire restrictions blanket at least half of Montana as a heat wave tightens its grip across the northern Rockies. Hot temperatures, low humidity and gusty winds have prompted Red Flag Warnings for portions of Central and North Central Montana through Monday evening. That means critical fire weather conditions are, or will soon, occur.
Widespread Stage One fire restrictions and local burn bans cover a wide swatch of the state as heat advisories are posted west and east of the Divide. That means no burning anywhere unless a Forest Service site is posted with specific exemptions.
Forecasters are also keeping a close eye on a possible on-again, off-again pattern of thunderstorms for west-central Montana on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Travis Booth is a National Weather Service Meteorologist in Missoula.
"The storms will be a mix of wet and dry storms, but they will have the potential for strong and gusty outflow winds. If we do have any fires ongoing or any new starts from lighting, those fires could spread very quickly."
The region-wide heatwave is expected to continue at least through Sunday.
Missoula Area fire danger was bumped up to "Very High" Monday, meaning fires will start easily, spread rapidly and quickly ramp up in intensity. Missoula area fire protection agencies made that decision Monday in the wake of an extremely dry and hot spell that have pushed temperatures near 100 degrees. There are no new fire restrictions at this time, but outdoor burning by permit remains closed in Missoula and surrounding counties.
The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation reports more than 60 percent of Missoula-area fires are human caused. Montanans are urged to do everything possible to avoid accidentally sparking a wildfire: for example, make sure trailer chains aren’t dragging, mow in the morning and make sure rocks aren’t in your path. Always make sure campfires are completely extinguished.
Hot, dry and windy conditions led to very active fire conditions today along the southern edge of the Bear Creek Fire burning near Lemhi, Idaho. The 6,300 acre lightning-caused fire is now listed at 10 percent contained. The fire Sunday afternoon was active on the northwest end, with a visible smoke column.
On the fire’s northeast side, crews Monday planned to conduct burnout operations in the Bear Gulch area. Structure protection is in place for a few structures to the east of the fire.
The fire is burning in timber/heavy fuels. These fuels will continue to dry out with low relative humidity. The chance for thunderstorms will increase throughout the week before returning to very hot and dry weather towards the end of the week.
Meanwhile, a lightning-caused fire burning about 34 miles east of Polson continues its steady creep upslope. The 94-acre Garnett Fire started Saturday. It’s burning about 4 miles up drainage from the South Fork of the Flathead River on the west side of Garnet Creek.
Its current fire behavior is classified as ‘creeping’, mainly upslope to the south. Single tree torching has also been observed. The fire is anticipated to spread east toward the Salmon Forks Administrative Site. Seven members of the Spotted Bear Wildland Fire team is on-site preparing to defend the structure.
Eastern Montana is bracing for record hot and dry conditions for the next few days which can enable any fire starts to spread quickly. In a post to Twitter, National Weather Service Meteorologist Ryan Walsh in Billings urges residents to take precautions to limit fire starts.
“We are going to be very hot and dry the next few days, which could make wildfires spread quickly. So keep your chains up and don’t be the cause of a roadside fire,” Walsh said.
Custer County Fire Chief Bud Peterson says local firefighters have been working to aggressively attack new fire starts in his county over the last few days.
The 136 acre Cox Fire that started on Friday morning was brought under control over the weekend with the help of Custer County and Bureau of Land Management fire crews and about an inch of rain. Bureau of Indian Affairs, BLM and US Forest Service fire crews were able to make quick work of a suspected human caused fire on Friday on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
The 53 acre East Side Fire is the third human caused fire this year in the same area above Crazy Head Heights southeast of Lame Deer. The fire was reported Friday afternoon and quickly threatened some homes, which were protected by the tribe’s Emergency Services department. The fire was contained by 8:30 p.m. that night. Northern Cheyenne Fire Management Officer Adam Wolf says the fire is under investigation.
Wildfire smoke from fires both near and far will bring hazy skies to #Montana for the foreseeable future. Follow Montana Dept. of Environmental Quality (@MTDEQ) for real-time & forecast air quality information. https://t.co/xv4suQFTnF. #mtwx #mtfire pic.twitter.com/FRV8pur5S4
— NWS Great Falls (@NWSGreatFalls) August 17, 2020
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced on Monday that the state’s firefighting coffer is fully funded. More than $46 million was transferred from the state’s general fund to the fire suppression fund on Saturday, putting it at its statutory maximum of $101.5 million. The money was transferred to the fund after state agencies finished the 2020 Fiscal Year under budget. The excess funds are required by law to be transferred to the fire suppression fund. Bullock, who is running for U.S. Senate, said the state’s reserves put it in a comfortable position to contend with fiscal challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.