Montana’s cool, wet spring has kept the danger of wildfire at low to moderate levels so far, but that could change with only a couple of weeks of hot, dry weather, Montana’s fire watchers reported Tuesday.
Federal and state officials painted a generally hopeful picture of the summer fire prospects in a briefing for Gov. Marc Racicot and Lt. Gov. Judy Martz at the Interagency Fire Dispatch Center.
The governor praised them for their agencies’ preparations and said the same kind of planning prevented untold amounts of damage from the spring floods. And with a nod to their swarms of graphs and charts and statistics, he said the planning seems to get more sophisticated every year and the training and preparation get better.
“We need to emphasize that we need to be very vigilant and very cautious,” the governor said.
Moisture was far above normal in much of the state this spring and continues at encouraging levels in most areas, said Steve Stoll of the National Weather Service. That reduces the threat from the heavy fuels that feed major fires, and computer models by the weather service indicate a good chance for continued cool weather, he said.
A cautionary note came from Tom Harbour, deputy director for fire and aviation with the U.S. Forest Service in Missoula: “If this turns dry in the next two to four weeks from now, we could have serious problems.”
The number of fires this year is far below the five-year average, with only 172 on federal lands and 34 on state lands through July 15. Counties reported 750.
For the first time this year, all private land in Montana has some form of fire protection, said Tim Murphy, fire and aviation chief for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. That’s because the last Legislature brought the only remaining holdouts - Mineral and Granite counties - into the statewide cooperative agreement, he said.
“One of the main concerns of all the fire protection agencies in Montana is what we call the wildlands-urban interface - in other words, the urban sprawl moving into our wildlands,” Murphy said.
The federal and state agencies that comprise the Northern Rockies Coordinating Group have information packages to help homeowners, developers and county planners reduce the hazards of homes built into the forests, Murphy added.
More than 400 fire departments now have cooperative agreements, and they are responsible for protecting about half of Montana’s 94 million acres, he said. DNRC, which protects about 5 million acres in western Montana, will help local fire departments if needed.
The remaining 40 million acres falls largely to the Northern Rockies Coordinating Group. That land includes 10 national forests, three Bureau of Land Management districts, seven Indian reservations, two national parks and some scattered Fish and Wildlife land.
Doug Williams of Fort Benton, president of the Montana Fire Wardens Association, said the Northern Rockies Coordinating Group has an air tanker, eight helicopters, 57 regular firefighting crews and 50 smoke jumpers available in Montana. He noted that it is subject to being called to other states if they need help.
In response to a question from the governor, the experts said the drain on Montana’s equipment was most likely to come from Southern California, Utah and Colorado.
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