Montana fire season expected to escalate in August

By: - July 27, 2022 5:45 pm

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

The dog days are here and Montana’s fire season is heating up after a cool spring.

“We will be getting new fire starts through the next week, especially over the next few days as things are hot and dry,” meteorologist with the Northern Rockies Coordination Center Michael Richmond said Wednesday. “These coming few days are really going to determine the nature of our season here in the Northern Rockies.”

As of Wednesday, 696 wildfires in Montana this year have burned more than 7,000 acres, but Richmond said the late start this season has made it less severe compared to last year. However, the National Weather Service predicts a warmer and drier than average August, and as dry thunderstorms come in the next few days with browning grass across the state, meteorologists say new fire starts are imminent.

“This is the time of year where drying out always happens for us, so ground fires cannot be ruled out for any part of the state at this point,” meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Billings Nick Vertz said. “It doesn’t take much, just a simple misplaced firework or straight lightning strike that can cause a grass fire. That’s just the nature of Montana in a nutshell for late July and going into August.”

Vertz said more storms have hit Montana than usual this summer, especially compared to the past few years. As Southwest monsoon storms lose their moisture when they enter the higher elevations, lightning from dry thunderstorms has started a number of fires including the major Clover and Hog Trough fires.

Montana is currently at Preparedness Level 2 out of 5, meaning that wildland fire activity is increasing, but forecasters predict only moderate fire risk and few high-risk events next week. Comparatively, the national level is worse at PL 3 and Montana was categorized at PL 5 this time last year.

The Coordination Center —  the interagency focal point for coordinating the mobilization of resources for wildland fires in the Northern Rockies Area — currently lists two large fires in Montana, the Hog Trough fire 18 miles Southeast of Hamilton and the Clover fire in the Middle Fork of Warm Springs Creek in Madison County. Hog Trough has burned 587 acres and is 9% contained but is expected to continue minimal growth over the next few days. Clover has burned 546 acres, is 10% contained and has had less activity the past two days.

Clover has 96 personnel preparing control lines around natural features. According to wildlife preparedness coordinator Max Rebholz, the Hog Trough fire has 126 personnel clearing roadside vegetation in the area and helicopters dropping water around the “rocky, steep and rugged terrain” that is unsafe for ground crews. Richmond said if the current heatwave gives way to stronger winds in the area, they “will definitely be seeing higher levels of activity.”

The latest major fire to emerge is the Prewett Creek Canyon fire, which was discovered July 26 seven miles west of Cascade. As of Wednesday morning, the Coordination Center said the fire is not contained and has burned 47 acres of grass and timber. Richmond said some cabins have been threatened but no primary structures.

The increased precipitation and even the aftermath of major flooding on the Yellowstone River in June has reduced drought conditions to zero across the state, except for in North Central Montana, which has been in extreme drought since last summer. The extra rain has also stopped fuels from drying out as quickly, which delayed the start of the fire season by two to three weeks compared to a typical year. However, Richmond said now that fuels are drying out, the fire season could last longer into the fall months.

“If we don’t get any significant rainfall in the next week, we’ll have high fire potential probably all of August, but overall, we’ve been really fortunate this year to have this later start of the season,” Richmond said. “But if the frequency of thunderstorms and warm conditions continue, we certainly could have a longer season with more potential for wind driven fires in the fall months.”

So far, local fires have not affected air quality, but the Moose fire south of the Salmon River in Idaho has created some minor smoke across southern Montana.

As the scattered thunderstorm forecasts coupled with the heatwave remain largely unpredictable, meteorologists say national forests are likely going to implement fire restrictions in the next few days to avoid more human-caused fires. Vertz said people should stay up to date with weather warnings, especially if they are in areas hit by multiple storms or that have experienced other fires in the last few years.

“We don’t want to ruin people’s summers. We just want everyone to be able to stay safe and take precautionary actions if extraordinary weather is heading their way, which we’ve seen a lot of this year,” Vertz said.

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Emily Tschetter
Emily Tschetter

Emily Tschetter is a junior studying journalism and political science at the University of Montana. She was born and raised in Billings and grew up surrounded with music between going to concerts and playing cello. She worked at the Montana Kaimin, University of Montana's independent student newspaper, as a news reporter last school year and will start as the news editor in the fall. In her free time Emily loves building up her vinyl collection, being overly critical of movies, going to cheap diners with friends and enjoying music whenever she can.