HELENA – So many wildfires have ignited across the Northern Rockies this month that fire officials are allowing some that might be suppressed under normal circumstances to burn because manpower and equipment are committed elsewhere.
There were 86 active fires burning across Montana and Idaho as of Monday, and seven in Montana were listed as unstaffed due to a lack of resources, according to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center. All seven are small fires burning in remote areas in northwestern Montana.
“Every fire engine out there is on a fire,” coordination center spokeswoman Liz Slown said. “Everything’s being used and everything’s being cycled through as quickly as possible.”
Fire officials are watching those fires and will reallocate resources if they pose a threat to public safety, she said.
Last week’s hot weather and lightning-packed storms helped ignite dozens of new fires in drought-parched areas of western Montana from east of Dillon to the Canadian border.
The new starts raised the national priority level for the region — which includes Idaho, Montana and parts of North Dakota and South Dakota — to the highest point on the 1-5 scale, Slown said.
“The fires in the Northwest have first priority, we have second priority,” she said. “Even though we have been moved up to a higher priority, there are just so many resources.”
More than 100 aircraft, 75 crews and 229 fire engines were being used to fight fires in the region as of Monday, according to the coordination center. Additional crews and equipment were being used for fires outside the Northern Rockies.
Only skeleton crews remained to respond to any new fires, while state officials were relying on local fire departments to respond if there were outbreaks in relatively quiet eastern Montana, said Montana Department of Natural Resources Administrator Bob Harrington.
“It’s an all-hands-on-deck time for us,” Harrington said.
Two factors may help the thinly spread firefighters this week. Cooler temperatures forecast through Thursday should allow firefighters to make progress on the blazes currently burning and let them prepare for this season’s next wave of fires, Slown said.
Also, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency over the weekend that will free up the Montana National Guard and additional state resources to help fight the fires.
Personnel and helicopters were at the ready, but they were not deployed Monday because of the favorable weather conditions, Bullock spokesman Dave Parker said.