Montanans welcome rain, but fire season continues

NWS: Moisture levels ‘pretty exceptional’

By: - August 2, 2021 4:28 pm

Areas along the border of Montana and Idaho received a lot of much-needed precipitation Sunday and Monday, and the moisture level in the air was extreme, according to the National Weather Service. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

If you danced in the rain in Montana this week, you weren’t alone.

This weekend, the Boulder 2700 fire burned people out of their homes on the east side of Flathead Lake, and smoke has choked communities across Montana. Fire season isn’t over by a long shot, but this weekend, the rain fell, it tamped down some fire activity, and the air is full of moisture. 

“It’s way above normal, and near record levels for overall moisture in the atmosphere for our area,” said Corby Dickerson, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula, on Monday. “So it’s pretty exceptional from a meteorological standpoint.”

Sarah Coefield, air quality specialist who sends out regular updates for the Missoula City-County Health Department, cheered on the precipitation in her Monday morning email, noting it was raining in Arlee: “Yay, rain!”

“Speaking of precipitation, depending on where you are, that was a nice bit of rain yesterday, wasn’t it?” Coefield wrote. “The mountains were mighty obscured this morning, but for once, it was due to low cloud cover rather than smoke.”

However, the rain also could bring trouble. The National Weather Service had issued flash flood watches or alerts of heavy rain in several places in the state.

Sunday and Monday morning, areas along the Idaho and Montana border received three quarters of an inch to 1.5 inches of rain, from just south of Lolo Pass all the way up to Lookout Pass, Dickerson said. The reports came from several different weather stations.

“That has kind of been the main focus for the heaviest precipitation,” he said.

Additionally, he said, one tenth to one quarter of an inch of precipitation fell across a large area down toward Deer Lodge, Anaconda and Butte. Toward Lost Trail Pass, half an inch of rain fell.

Kalispell got anywhere from three quarters of an inch to nearly an inch, and an inch fell in the Flathead Valley. In the Seeley Swan and Mission Valley, a tenth to a quarter of an inch has fallen.

“There were several clusters of showers and thunderstorms that developed yesterday and that moved across the area,” Dickerson said.

Generally, Dickerson said the rain was beneficial for fires, particularly the blazes near the Idaho border because significant precipitation fell. As with a campfire, where “you just have to keep pouring buckets of water to get it dead out,” wildfires require multiple days of rain to be completely doused.

“Rainfall has really suppressed fire activity so firefighters can be effective in producing additional line around the fire and can do things they couldn’t do when fire was hot and dry and fire was exceptionally active,” Dickerson said.

Monday, Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office announced a wildfire dashboard with information on active blazes. See the dashboard at www.mtfireinfo.org, which lists the U.S. Forest Service, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and others as partners.

“As of this afternoon, there are currently 88 active fires in the state, with 13 starts in the last 24 hours,” said a news release from the Governor’s Office. “There have been 1,794 fires this year, with more than 468,158 acres burned to date this year. In the past week alone, the number of acres burned has doubled across Montana.”

In many places, the rain did reach the forest floor, although the rainfall didn’t help areas of northwest Montana as much, Dickerson said. However, the added humidity and higher dew point Monday and going into Tuesday help limit the potential for fire activity.

Smoke is likely to pick back up in the next couple of days, but it will take a little bit of time given the rain and humidity: “We’re not out of the woods yet, but this is definitely what we’ve been hoping would happen sometime this summer.”

The storm brought some lightning, but not a lot, although any starts from strikes won’t come to light for another couple of days given the moisture, generally way above normal, three to four standard deviations above the mean, Dickerson said.

“Any of these showers that move overhead are moving some pretty intense rainfall, some good downpours,” he said. Dew points are in the 60s and 70s. “These are values that we just don’t see around here that often, especially in the summertime.”

The amount of rain that fell early this week is extreme for this time of year, but Dickerson said more moisture is forecast later in the week, with a chance of showers and thunderstorms probably by Thursday. Then, the entire state will enter a much cooler pattern.

Climatologically, that makes sense, because the end of July and start of August are the apex of peak heating, he said. Past this week, a more normal summer pattern will emerge, with a couple of warm days followed by a cool-down, and then a repeat.

“I think it’s looking more and more likely that the worst of this is starting to be behind us, maybe,” Dickerson said. “We’ll see. In the coming days, we should have more confidence. The pattern overall is certainly more favorable for cooler weather than warmer weather. At least that’s what the trends are showing.”

Some places of Montana have seen highs in the triple digits, but those numbers are falling. Kalispell expected a high of 82 on Monday, and Butte was expecting rain and high of 72, for example.

At the same time, Coefield’s update included a note that fire season isn’t over by a long shot: “As a reminder, August is usually the start of fire season.” Plus, even if it’s not burning in Montana, other states can send smoke this way.

“We have another couple months of fire season ahead of us,” she wrote. “I am really excited for this precipitation and the lowered afternoon highs in the long-range forecast, but we are not anywhere near out of the woods. …  Don’t let a good air day pass you by.”

She asked people to check out www.montanawildfiresmoke.org for tips for getting through the fire season.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.

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