Montana, Western U.S. Facing Another Severe Fire Season

By Beacon Staff

Fire season across much of the western United States, including portions of Montana, is shaping up to be severe yet again, and federal officials say there are fewer resources available to fight the blazes due to budget constraints.

“I think it’s going to be a tough one,” U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said during a May 13 fire season outlook conference call.

Fueled by drought conditions, wildfires in 2012 burned 9.3 million acres and more than 4,400 structures nationwide, which was the third highest number of acres burned since at least 1960, the earliest date with reliable records, according to the USDA.

Montana experienced its worst fire year since 1910, with more than 2,000 fires burning over 1.1 million acres statewide. There are similarly dry conditions this year across the western U.S.

Jewell visited the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho earlier this week with Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The two agency heads said they are working closely with other federal agencies, as well as tribal, state and local governments in preparing to combat what is expected to be a “difficult” and potentially “dangerous” fire season.

“We are working together to preposition our firefighting teams and equipment to make the most effective use of available resources during this time of constrained budgets,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack and Jewell said their departments will do everything they can to prevent and mitigate the damage of wildfires, but they also asked landowners and other residents to take precautionary steps to minimize fire risk as much as possible, such as reducing fuels on private property.

Educational resources can be found at www.fireadapted.com, www.firewise.org and www.wildlandfirersg.org. For incident update information, visit www.inciweb.org.

“By taking simple fire prevention steps, you will not only protect yourself and your families, but also the firefighters who put their lives in harm’s way to fight wildfires,” said U.S. Fire Administrator Ernie Mitchell, who joined Vilsack and Jewell on the conference call. “Remember, fire is everyone’s fight.”

As of early May, fire activity was lower than in recent years in the eastern part of the country, where wildfire season typically starts before transitioning out west. Jeremy Sullens, a wildland fire analyst with the NIFC, said the decrease in acreage burned in eastern and southeastern U.S. is thanks to higher levels of precipitation.

“It’s a very different story out west,” Sullens said. “Out west, there is severe drought.”

Sullens said California has seen less than 25 percent of precipitation than would generally be expected at this point of the year. Other areas in the west are dry as well, and a NIFC outlook report says “significant wildland fire potential” will be above average from New Mexico and Arizona to Oregon and Washington, beginning this month in some areas.

Significant fire potential is anticipated to be near normal in the Northern Rockies in May and June. But by July and August, the NIFC says significant fire potential will have reached above average levels in Central Idaho and southwestern Montana.

“We’re expecting very dry conditions in the heavier fuel types,” Sullens said.

The NIFC’s outlook report from May 1 states that severe drought conditions in southwestern Montana are expanding northward and westward. With soil moisture near record low levels in an area that “usually has a high likelihood for lightning activity,” the report notes that there are “significant concerns for the peak of the upcoming fire season and will need to be monitored closely as spring unfolds.”

In addition to western Montana, the report details concerns for the south-central portion of the state, where there are “extreme” drought conditions and near-record low soil moisture levels. The report notes that south-central Montana could be the “first area to see significant wildland fire activity.”

The prospects in southeastern Montana and North Dakota are more encouraging, thanks to cool and wet weather providing drought relief and enabling a “full green up,” according to the report. Long-range data, however, suggest the relief could be temporary because of forecasted warm and dry conditions.

“A normal start to the primary fire season is expected beginning in south central and southeastern Montana in late June followed by a gradual transition westward with the drying and curing of the fuels,” the NIFC report states.

“The core of fire season across western Montana and northern Idaho should begin in mid to late July and hit its stride in August.”

Vilsack says federal budget constraints will result in 500 fewer seasonal and permanent firefighters for the U.S. Forest Service, dropping from 10,500 to 10,000. The Forest Service, an agency of Vilsack’s USDA, manages 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands nationwide.

Altogether, federal firefighting resources include more than 13,000 seasonal and permanent firefighters; 1,600 engines and 26 multi-engine air tankers; 27 single-engine air tankers; and hundreds of helicopters, according to the agriculture and interior departments.

Jewell, who took over the interior department’s top position last month, says addressing climate change will be an important factor in addressing long-term wildfire prevention and management. She said 12 of the hottest years on record have occurred in last 15 years.

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