Montana Officials Expecting Normal Fire Season

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Trees damaged and killed by beetles could provide fuel for major fires in the region from Helena to Butte to the Big Hole Valley this summer, state forester Bob Harrington warned Monday.

If fire starts in those areas, which Harrington called the “epicenter” of the mountain pine beetle infestation, it will require a more aggressive and safe response, he said.

“We have such continuous fuels there — the majority of ’em are dead now — the fire behavior you’re going to experience there will be different than adjacent green forests,” Harrington said.

He said while a lightning strike in a green forest might not cause a major fire, one that strikes a dead lodgepole in a beetle-killed area could spark an intense fire that would be very difficult to suppress.

Last fall, Montana was estimated to have 2.7 million acres of forests damaged by pine beetles. Harrington said that number could be double by this fall.

“It might mean you get a barn-burner of a fire,” he said.

Harrington, administrator of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Forestry Division, briefed Gov. Brian Schweitzer Monday on this summer’s fire danger, saying most of the state is expecting a “normal” fire season.

“Right now, the good news is we’ve got pretty good snowpack,” he said. “We’ve had good spring rainfall for most of the state. For what we know now, it’s looking to be average. We don’t have any indications from the models that it’s going to be significantly bad.”

Schweitzer warned residents living in the urban wildland interface to thin trees near their homes and make sure they have more than one road out in case of a fire.

“If you live in that interface, let’s just assume you won’t get help,” Schweitzer said.

“Don’t look for the government to bail you out,” he said. “We are not going to sacrifice one (firefighter’s) life for one person’s home.”