As Dry Weather Persists, Chance for Major Fire Grows

By Beacon Staff

Convective rains have flora on the valley floor flourishing, but recent dry weather could prove explosive as the Montana fire season is late, but imminent.

“It’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security,” Department of Natural Resources and Conservation fire plan manager Dan Cassidy said. “These fine fuels – lush grass and brush – could dry out quickly. We’re right on the cusp.”

High-elevation snowpack may quell fires similar to a year ago, but in the Flathead Valley precipitation is still below average. To date Kalispell is two inches shy of the National Weather Services 30-year precipitation average of 10.08 inches. The same is true in the southeastern and northeastern parts of the state, while central Montana, including Glasgow, is above average.

Montana as a whole, though, has yet to shake a persistent drought.

In the summer months, convective rains are produced from afternoon instability where cool and warm air collide resulting in sporadic showers. But National Weather Service meteorologist Matthew Foster pointed out that dry timber needs prolonged precipitation to remain fire resistant.

Snowpack alone is not indicative of valley precipitation counts.

“The valleys didn’t get nearly as much precipitation as the mountains,” Foster said. Moreover, convective rains are misleading. “An area may get a 20-minute shower,” he added, “but just down the road there may be no trace.”

The lack of rain is what also worries Cassidy. An increasingly dry understory acts as fuel for dry tree crowns, creating kindling for lightning to strike.

“Some tree species – Western Hemlock, Ponderosa Pine – can withstand low intensity burns,” Cassidy said. “But you can’t stop a crown fire from spreading.”

On average, Cassidy said the drying trend is behind schedule and, once fires do start, they will likely burn at lower and mid-level elevations first.

Elsewhere, in the midst of the dry summer season, lightning has sparked hundreds of wildfires, particularly in California. Many Montana firefighters are working lines in other states. They will quickly be returned home, however, when the first major fire here ignites.

“We have a drawdown plan,” Craig Glazier, fire management officer for the Flathead National Forest, said. “We’ll limit where we assist nationally based on what is happening here. We’ll never be caught without resources.”

DNRC firefighters, also in California, will return to Montana as needed. But if a large fire erupts, the agency will be forced to rely on local engines, helicopters and bulldozers until more manpower arrives.

“If it happens soon we won’t have the resources to deal with it,” Cassidy said. “We’ll have to make due with what we have.”

Flathead National Forest spokeswoman Denise Germann says Montana’s fire dependent ecosystem, isn’t to be overlooked. Wildland Urban Interface, or “WUI” plays a significant role in fighting fire. Life and property remain top priorities, but if lives and homes are to be saved, private property owners need to take responsibility by moving woodpiles and trimming trees near homes.

“We want people to take a proactive not reactive approach,” Germann said. “Ingres and regress need to be easily accessible and addresses visibly posted – people need to be ‘fire wise.’”

Heading into August, weather is expected to be dry in between sporadic storms and the occasional prolonged period of rain. But in Montana, some things are inevitable.

“We are going to have a fire season,” Cassidy said. “It’s just a matter of when.”