BILLINGS — Fire potential in Western Montana this summer is predicted to be above normal, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
“The wild card, of course, is COVID and how we’ll deal with response,” said Bryan Henry, a NIFC meteorologist, in a June 1 podcast.
Many of this year’s existing weather patterns are similar to 2007, a year that brought Missoula’s average high to 96 degrees with 12 days that topped 100 that summer, he noted. That year, 9.3 million acres burned in more than 85,000 fires. Luckily, the state is wetter coming into this summer than in 2007, Henry noted.
Lightning storms have already started fires in Alaska, and during the past month Wyoming has become “increasingly dry,” Henry said. The long-term outlook for the Northern Rockies forecast area, from July through September, is a high probability for above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation, he added.
The dryness in the southwestern corner of Montana near Dillon is “a bit disturbing” to Michael DeGrosky, Fire Protection Bureau chief for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. He noted in a presentation to the Environmental Quality Council on May 28 that the state’s firefighting resources have been deployed strategically around Montana to ensure a quick response to any blaze. That helped on Jan. 31 when a fire broke out in north-central Montana, he said, an early start to the fire season.
February was a wet month that helped make up for some of that dryness. However, portions of southeastern Montana are abnormally dry, making them ripe for fire as fine fuels like grasses dry out in the summer sun and lightning storms rake the region.
“We plan for the worst and hope for the best,” he said, adding that the goal is to douse fires before they become big enough to require additional resources.
That tactic is important during the coronavirus pandemic because in the past, large fires have congregated firefighters from across the United States and even other countries such as New Zealand and Canada, The Billings Gazette reported.
“COVID-19 makes everything much more complicated,” DeGrosky said. “Our goal is to carry out our critical work, but make sure we are protecting our workers from COVID transmission … to maintain our firefighting capacity.”
COVID complications aren’t the reason that Billings-based mobile caterer Bob Pitcher isn’t sending his trucks to fire camps in the Southwest.
“The government is dragging their feet” on contracts, he said, and has been unresponsive to requests from him and other mobile caterers about what’s causing the delay.
Although the novel coronavirus pandemic would seem to be reason for changing protocol to keep people safely distanced and ensure sanitary conditions, Pitcher’s contract should have been issued seven months ago — long before the COVID-19 outbreak.
“It’s not a COVID problem, it’s a Forest Service problem,” he said.
Normally during fire season Pitcher sends out his 53-foot portable kitchen, built inside a semi-tractor trailer, to fires in the Southwest in the spring. The crews move around as fires ignite in other states. The mobile kitchen will travel with 15 workers. Locals are hired when he reaches fire camp. For 19 years, his truck has traveled the United States. At Montana’s biggest fires the mobile kitchen has served as many as 1,700 meals.
Without businesses like his serving firefighters, Pitcher said he’s heard the Forest Service is hiring local caterers or handing out military MREs (meals ready to eat).
“That makes us look bad because the firefighters are wondering where we are,” Pitcher said.