HELENA — Montana weather experts say a wet spell this spring helped mitigate what could have been a destructive summer for crops, but it hasn’t eased the high threat of wildfire.
A state drought committee concluded Thursday that snowpack melted a month ahead of schedule and exacerbated the slight drought conditions persisting in western Montana.
Montana’s situation pales in comparison to the crippling drought in California, where mandatory water cutbacks have expanded from residential neighborhoods to rural irrigation districts. But with thousands of forest acres increasingly considered vulnerable to fire this summer, Montana is distressed enough to have been included in a June 12 drought conversation between President Barack Obama and the governors of six western states.
“It’s not looking good,” Montana Direct Protection Fire Coordinator Harold Gemmell said after the Governor’s Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee meeting on Thursday.
Gemmell said he’s particularly concerned about the northwest corner of the state, which received just 20 percent of its typical snowpack this year.
Kalispell, a tourism hub north of Flathead Lake, experienced its driest May ever the same year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recorded Earth’s warmest May on records dating back to 1880.
“Pretty much all of Montana is likely to see higher-than-normal temperatures,” said Gina Loss, a National Weather Service hydrologist.
Lucas Zukiewicz, a U.S. Department of Agriculture water supply specialist, said areas east of the Continental Divide received a normal amount of precipitation last month thanks to rainstorms. But Loss said that, overall, precipitation has been below normal.
Peak river levels have come and gone, Zukiewicz said, and Montana will rely on summer precipitation to head off any worsening conditions.
“Moving forward we’re really going to have to see a major turn for there to be any improvement,” Zukiewicz said.
The state as a whole will soon sorely miss the snowpack, he said.
“I can’t talk about snow anymore, it makes me really sad,” Zukiewicz said before leaving the lectern.
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