Montana 2022 fire season likely better than ’21, but high firefighter vacancies among challenges

Governor Gianforte calls for ‘aggressive’ approach

By: - May 3, 2022 4:06 pm

A plane from Billings drops fire retardant in Rosebud County on Aug. 12, 2021 [Photo courtesy of Rosebud County Sheriffs Office]

Montanans should expect another worse-than-average wildfire season this year, state fire managers and officials told Gov. Greg Gianforte at his annual fire briefing this week, though likely not as bad as the drought-aggravated 2021 season.

That’s if you still choose to think of fire season as a season. Officials told the governor, as they did in 2021, that the West and Montana are seeing longer fire seasons that start earlier, burn hotter and end later, essentially encompassing the entire year.

“We’re having this briefing earlier than we usually do,” said Sonya Germann, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s forestry division administrator. “That’s in recognition of the fact that we really do have a fire year.”

The governor, in response to insight and projections from fire managers, continued his push from last year for an active, aggressive approach to managing the forest as well as the fires themselves at a landscape scale. No fire in the state would be left to burn out, he said.

“To reduce the risk, we must actively manage our forests and implement effective land management strategies,” Gianforte said. “I’m calling on our partners across Montana to dedicate their agencies and resources to this end, to aggressive attack on all fires – from their ignition, beyond the first 24 hours, until they’re contained, and until they’re extinguished.”

Last year was clear enough evidence of the unrelenting nature of the modern fire season. The summer’s first major fire, the 21,000-acre Robertson Draw Fire near Red Lodge, sparked in early June. And one of the year’s most destructive blazes, the West Wind Fire, devastated the town of Denton six months later, in December. Serious drought and above-average temps had the state in their grips — especially east of the Divide — for basically the whole year, keeping fuels dry and the chances of severe fires elevated.

Climate change is also a major factor, worsening drought, drying out fuels and damaging forest health.

Conditions in 2022, however, are not looking to be quite as dire, said Steve Ippoliti, predictive services meteorologist with the Northern Rockies Geographic Coordinating Center, a regional land and fire management group. As it stands, temperatures have been lower than average in the state over both the last 30 and 90 days. This has helped parts of Montana retain their winter snowpack, a key element in staving off fire once the dry season comes.

In May of last year, the snow pack was about 10 or 20% of what it is now, Ippoliti said. Snow-water equivalent measurements in parts of western Montana are in fact above average, he said, another positive sign.

“We are recovering, but it takes a lot to recover from a significant deficit,” he said. 

Montana is again facing an above-average chance for severe fire across much of the state, as this chart shows (Courtesy NRCC)

The worst of the pernicious drought that blanketed the state last year has also begun to back off, he said, leaving parts of Montana out of drought entirely. However, the eastern part of the state has and will likely continue to remain under high drought conditions, he said. And by the end of July, with drought having likely re-established itself over most of the state, almost all of Montana will face an above-average potential for significant wildfire activity, according to the monthly National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook.

Of course, this is all subject to how the weather plays out over the coming weeks. Current projections forecast a normal May, with some low-pressure systems bringing precipitation, followed by warm, dry conditions through June and the rest of the summer. This could mean a season that gets off to a slower start than last year, but much of the state should still expect to see above-average fire risk for severe fires, he said.

“It could be a fairly normal season. However, that will greatly depend on how long that snow pack will persist,” Ippoliti said.

One of the distinct challenges of last year’s season was a strain on resources. That is likely to persist this year, Germann cautioned, especially as the rest of the West sees large-scale fires that often take precedent over Montana’s. Land managers from other agencies had similar warnings — the Bureau of Indian Affairs, for example, is facing a near-60 percent vacancy rate for wildland firefighting positions.

Gianforte sought to address some of these concerns last year by boosting minimum base pay for seasonal wildland firefighters to above $15, a change that will take full effect in 2022.

“Everyone is struggling to fill firefighting positions, but this is hopefully going to give us the best shot at hiring some of these individuals,” Germann said, thanking the governor for the pay boost.

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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.