Fire conditions are improving, but Haystack and other destructive blazes still rage

‘Wildfires can still start regardless of what the seasonal weather patterns are’

By: - September 24, 2021 6:05 pm

A view of the Robertson Draw fire near Red Lodge (Photo via Darrell Ehrlick for the Daily Montanan).

State fire officials are urging “continued vigilance” as the cooler temps and shorter days of autumn set in, taking the worst out of a severe fire season in Montana but doing little to remedy underlying conditions that leave much of the state at risk.

In a briefing with Gov. Greg Gianforte this week, fire officials with the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation said there are now 12 large active fires in the state, down from 15 last week and as many as 25 in some weeks in August. The rate out of the state fire suppression fund, which entered the July fiscal year full at $105 million and now sits at around $49 million, has similarly slowed, as has the strain on resources, both in Montana and nationally.

But, as has been a theme all year, fire managers stressed that wildfires can start no matter the season, especially when humans are involved, and that there’s still some critical fire weather coming down the pike.

“As the nights get cooler, and there’s less daylight available, the burn windows are shorter,” said Kristen Sleeper, a statewide fire information officer with the DNRC. “There are large fires still on the landscape.”

Just last week, the number of primary structures lost to fire this season climbed from 51 to 53 thanks to the Haystack Fire, Montana’s top priority blaze, which had burned 11,655 acres near Boulder by Sept. 24. The largest active fire, at 56,700 acres and 50 percent containment, is Trail Creek. All of the five largest and top priority fires in the state are burning on federal land.

“Wildfires are very dependent on not only the weather but also human actions,” Sleeper said. “We still have our fire crews initially attacking fires every day.”

This is especially important with the onset of hunting season, she said; even cold, a spark from a campfire or bullet fragment can start a wildfire.

All that being said, warm, dry conditions in much of the state have yet to fully subside. Much of Beaverhead County and the surrounding areas are facing critical fire weather conditions over the weekend, with a high pressure ridge bringing gusts of wind and temperatures in the 80s — not as bad as the series of consecutive 90-plus degree days earlier in the summer, but still risky. Cooler temperatures are expected to return to the state next week, according to the National Weather Service in Great Falls.

Another change from the summer is a loosening of the demand for firefighting resources. The U.S. is now at a national wildland fire preparedness level of four, down from five, the highest level, indicating that about 60 percent of incident management teams and firefighting personnel are committed to wildfires — still far from ideal, but an improvement. And as the season winds down, seasonal crews are beginning to return to their normal lives, though Sleeper said the DNRC is confident it has the resources itself to address a major event.

“Nationally, the scene is quieting down,” she said.

What hasn’t changed, at least by and large, are the drought conditions that have essentially all the state in a vice grip, posing a constant wildfire risk; conditions only compounded by the onward march of climate change.

It’s been the fifth driest year in Montana on record, Sleeper said, and 100 percent of the state is facing drought at some level, especially in the east. That means low fuel moisture levels and dry thunderstorms that start more fires than they put out, for example.

Wildfires can still start regardless of what the seasonal weather patterns are,” she said. 

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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.