Montana fire season not over yet, despite rain and cooler temps

‘I want to remind everybody that this was not a season-ending event’

By: - August 25, 2021 5:46 pm

Smoke from wildfires makes for an eerie sunset at Montana Fair in Billings on Aug.17, 2021 (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Montana’s fire season still has weeks — if not months — to go, even with recent rains and cooler temperatures, Gov. Greg Gianforte and other Montana officials said in a press conference in Missoula on Wednesday, repeating calls for increased active forest management and encouraging residents to remain cautious.

Gianforte took the opportunity to thank first responders, firefighters of all jurisdictions and a number of state, regional, tribal and federal agency partners that have helped to battle an almost unprecedentedly dry and hot fire season in the Northern Rockies, but he emphasized that a fire season that started earlier and burned hotter than others will also end later.

“While we are grateful our prayers were answered with the recent rain and cooler temperatures, we all know the season’s not over yet,” Gianforte said. “It’s critical Montanans stay informed and continue to do their part to prevent wild-land fire starts.

The change in weather has indeed provided a break: All standing evacuation and pre-evacuation orders across the state have been lifted, and firefighters have managed to tame some of the most aggressive fires in the state. And the pattern has settled in somewhat, with showers in southwest Montana on Wednesday evening and then north of I-90 later in the week, according to the National Weather Service office in Missoula. However, the NWS also said that conditions on the ground were dry, and that a weak high pressure ridge could bring warmer temperatures into the 80s in western Montana over the weekend.

“All relationships have their ups and downs, and the Northern Rockies with its weather will be no different this next seven days,” NWS forecasters wrote in a narrative report Wednesday.

Fire officials have said all year that rainstorms are no excuse for complacency, given continual aridity in the soil and fuels. The National Interagency Fire Center said in its August report that much of the state will continue to have an above-normal potential for significant fire throughout September, and into October for parts of central and eastern Montana.

“I want to remind everybody that this was not a season-ending event,” said Sonya Germann, Forestry Division Administrator with the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “There’s a lot of wildland fire season left.”

Around 50 active fires are burning in the state currently. Since January, Montana has seen 2,100 fires burn around 50 residences and more than 825,000 acres — the most land burned since the record fire season in 2017. Fighting those fires has cost the state around $45 million from the fire suppression fund, which began the fiscal year over the summer with $105 million. And even if the total acreage this season hasn’t reached the levels of 2017, fire experts say the conditions this year are about as bad as they’ve seen.

“The 2021 fire season is one of our hottest and driest on record in Montana,”  Germann said. “Over the course of this season, we have faced critical fire conditions earlier in the year than average, and we expect the fire season to continue well into the fall.”

She added that Montana isn’t alone in that regard, and that severe fire seasons across the country have drained resources and exhausted firefighters.

Gianforte and other policymakers from both major parties offer more aggressive forest management as a major tool in the strategy to combat worsening wildfires. He and Montana Sen. Steve Daines expressed support on Wednesday for different proposals making their way through Congress that would ramp up management activities like thinning and prescribed burns, like the Resilient Federal Forests Act. The legislation would also make it harder for plaintiffs to secure injunctions against timber projects they believe might violate the law.

“We simply must do a better job of managing our forests before they manage us,” Daines said, calling out “extreme environmental groups” for blocking progress in that regard. “We need to stop the frivolous litigation. There’s 230 million board feet tied up in lawsuits in the state of Montana as we speak today.”

Environmental groups that sue have often argued they want the U.S. Forest Service to follow its own federal regulations before moving ahead on logging projects.

Gianforte directed the DNRC this year to more than double the amount of acres it treats with active management techniques this year, to 25,000. And he’s touted a number of public-private partnerships that provide opportunities for timber interests on land identified as high priority for management — a philosophy that has proved controversial among some conservationists, who fear that more logging will continue to be offered as the primary solution to worsening fires.

The speakers Wednesday danced around climate change, which experts say is a major contributing factor to the growing severity of wildfires today. However, Daines said he believes forest management can be part of the discussion “as we start addressing these issues regarding a climate.” 

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.

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