Montana Fire Season Forecast to be Big, Despite Snowy Winter

Conditions are expected to change by next month as the warm temperatures quickly melt the deep mountain snowpack

By Molly Priddy

HELENA — A soggy Montana may still be recovering from spring flooding after one of the snowiest winters on record, but state officials are preparing for what is forecast to be an above-average wildfire season starting next month.

Department of Natural Resources and Conservation officials and the Montana National Guard scheduled a briefing Thursday afternoon to assess Montana’s readiness after last year’s fires exhausted the state’s firefighting cash reserves.

Montana, coming off a winter that approached or broke snowfall records, is faring better than other Western states that had a dry, warm winter. In Colorado and Utah, for example, early season fires have forced thousands of people to flee their homes.

By contrast, the Northern Rockies were one of only two areas of the country without active fires as of Thursday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Ninety percent of Montana is experiencing normal moisture, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, but the land is already drying out fast with temperatures in May running 5 degrees above average. By mid-July, the threat for significant wildland fires will be above normal in northern and western Montana, according to the fire center.

By August and September, that above-normal threat will extend to south central Montana.

Montana is still recovering from last year’s fire season, when 1,500 square miles (4,045 square kilometers) burned and cost the state $68.7 million, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation spokesman John Grassy said.

That doesn’t count the U.S. government’s costs to respond to fires on federal lands.

State lawmakers trying to close a budget shortfall transferred $30 million from a state fund used for wildfire costs last year before the worst of the fires ignited. Then, what had been forecast as a normal fire season turned into one of the most expensive seasons on record, quickly wiping out the $32 million remaining in the fund and sinking the state into a deeper financial hole.

The state government will enter this year’s fire season with just $4.1 million in the fund, Grassy said.

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