As Montana fire officials gaze down the barrel of another long fire season, they’ve concluded that southwest Montana is among the most vulnerable areas in the state.
With that in mind, the U.S. Forest Service upgraded the fire danger level from moderate to high on Tuesday for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.
John Grassy, a public information officer with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in Helena, said that at a recent statewide fire meeting, the DNRC designated southwest Montana as a hotspot for potential fire activity.
“What we’re seeing is the area of the state that hasn’t benefitted from the rains in May and the early part of June is the southwest part of the state,” Grassy said. “For the rest of the state the danger is low to moderate.”
Zach Uttech, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Great Falls, said the precipitation in southwest Montana was indeed about 30 to 40 percent below average for the last month. He also said forecast for the area is trending toward higher temperatures with little precipitation.
“Overall, (the weather pattern) doesn’t look great to mitigate the fire danger over the next couple of weeks,” Uttech said.
Uttech said there are chances for isolated thunderstorms in the area over the weekend and later next week, but those storms, while bringing some moisture, might also bring the danger of lightning.
The weather service listed the current fire danger for most of southwest Montana as moderate, but the Forest Service thought it was prudent to raise the level to high for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest because the vegetation is becoming dry.
Forest Service spokesperson Leona Rodreick in Dillon said lightning strikes caused a couple of single tree fires in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness west of Philipsburg in the last few days. Single-engine responders quashed those blazes before they got larger than a tenth of an acre, according to Roderick.
“Things are starting to dry out,” she said. “The lower elevations will dry out quicker than the higher elevations. And a lot depends on the vegetation and weather patterns in the area.”
Grassy said as summer progresses thunderstorms will bring less precipitation and more lightning, which will raise the chances of fire.
However, Grassy also said about half of all fires are caused by human activity.
“It’s important that people are aware of any fire restrictions that may be in effect and be careful with campfires and doing things like driving vehicles through tall grass,” he said.
Though difficult to predict, Rodreick didn’t anticipate the Forest Service upgrading the fire danger for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest in the near future.
Currently, no fire restrictions are in place in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.
Still, the Forest Service stands ready.
“As a person who has been working in fire information for a number of seasons, every day is a new day,” she said. “(Whatever happens) we’ll work though it.”