HELENA — Montana will likely see more fires and smoke-filled skies this year than it saw law year, officials said Tuesday.
While snow pack in the state is above average, July is expected to be warmer and drier than normal, raising the fire risk, National Weather Service meteorologist Michael Richmond said during a fire season briefing to Gov. Steve Bullock and state officials.
Richmond predicted more smoke to come into the western part of the state this year compared to previous years. Climate patterns could cause smoke from fires in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Northern California to settle in northwestern Montana, he said.
“With the COVID issues and respiratory issues, that is something really serious to be aware of,” Richmond said.
The 2019 fire season was relatively mild, with less than 156 square miles (404 square kilometers) burned, compared to the record 2017 season, when fire charred 2,125 square miles (5,504 square kilometers) in the state.
Montana Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Fire and Aviation Chief Mike DeGrosky said 401 fires have been reported so far this year, burning more than 19 square miles (49 square kilometers).
The number of fires reported this year is smaller than last year, but the area burned so far is four times larger, likely due to drier conditions in some parts of the state, DeGrosky said.
“These days, we’re always one flash drought away from a very challenging fire season,” he said.
Bullock said that preventing the spread of COVID-19 will be one of the state’s missions in the upcoming fire season.
“We’re committed to aggressive initial attack in order to minimize risk exposure to our personnel and the public, by keeping fires small and their duration as short as possible,” Bullock said.
Officials used last weekend’s fire south of Helena as an example of the threat the season poses.
“It was very much the fire that we have worried about in Helena for some time,” said Director of Natural Resources and Conservation John Tubbs.
The fire, spread by high wind on Saturday, led to numerous pre-evacuation notices in neighborhoods in Jefferson County and Lewis and Clark County. All notices were lifted by Tuesday.
The fire was not contained as of Tuesday, but no structures were lost to the fire, Tubbs said. The source of the fire is still under investigation.