Meteorological Experts Say Northwest Montana Should Prepare for Prolonged, Intense Fire Season

Representatives from federal and state environmental agencies warned that hot, dry conditions are setting the Flathead Valley up for extreme fire events in the coming months

By Denali Sagner
Flames from the Elmo Fire burn around Dayton on the western shore of Flathead Lake on August 1, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Residents of northwest Montana should be prepared for a lengthy, intense fire season that could begin within the next few weeks, representatives from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) told Gov. Greg Gianforte during a fire season outlook briefing on Tuesday morning.

“The dryness that’s out there is most likely to stick,” Daniel Borsum, Northern Rockies Geographic Area meteorologist with the BLM, said.

Borsum outlined a concerning confluence of climate and weather patterns across the Mountain West that may poise Montana — and specifically Flathead, Glacier and Lincoln counties — for a long and hot wildland fire season that could persist into October.

“The Continental Divide provides a very clear delineation for where we have concerns,” Borsum said.

According to Borsum, Flathead, Glacier and Lincoln counties have missed more than 20 inches of moisture over the past five years, signaling a persistent drought pattern that would not be mitigated by a handful of rainstorms, and which is contributing to the intensified wildfire risk in the region. While drought conditions are most visible during the summer months, Borsum noted that northwest Montana saw winter drought conditions as well, saying that “the snow under-delivered” this past season. 

Nearly 65% of Flathead County is currently experiencing severe drought conditions, and 33.38% is experiencing moderate drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center’s U.S. Drought Monitor. Currently, 98.3% of residents in Flathead County are affected by drought conditions.

In addition to low precipitation, Borsum cited abnormally high temperatures as a factor in wildfire concern. The BLM meteorologist said that May 2023 was the fourth warmest May in Montana history, and the warmest ever in the northwest part of the state. The average temperature in Montana in May was 56.4 F –– 6.2 F warmer than the historical mean temperature of 50.2 F over the last century.

In addition to abnormal heat and drought conditions, the arrival of El Niño, a natural climate pattern marked by warmer global temperatures, has further raised concerns about this summer and future fire seasons. Though wildland fires in Montana will abate by the fall, Borsum said, another dry winter and low snowpack will likely replicate this year’s conditions next summer.

Though cool evenings and some precipitation have warded off major fire events so far this summer, Matt Hall, fire protection bureau chief for the DNRC, advised Montanans to be prepared for a quick ramp up in fire activity. Hall urged local municipalities to implement burn bans and asked residents and visitors to remain vigilant about activities that could start fires.

“We’re likely to see a rapid increase now as the weather’s changing and the rain stops,” Gianforte said.

The governor urged Montanans who live in high-risk fire areas to develop an evacuation plan and emphasized individual citizens’ roles in limiting fire activity.

“While we cannot control the weather, we can take steps to mitigate the risks of severe wildfires,” Gianforte said. “We must respond with one goal, and that is to put the fire out safely and as quickly as possible.”

Multiple peer-reviewed scientific studies have found a link between human-caused climate change and increasingly intense fire seasons. According to a United Nations report released in February 2022, climate change brings warming temperatures and drought, prompting longer and more destructive wildfire seasons, which release greater amounts of climate-changing carbon into the atmosphere.

Gianforte, a Republican, has broken with his party by acknowledging that the climate is changing, per a 2021 interview with the Montana Free Press. However, the governor discontinued Montana’s membership in the U.S. Climate Alliance and signed a bill this spring that banned state regulators from considering climate change when assessing the environmental impacts of a proposed development project.

More information about fire restrictions and current fire information can be found at mtfireinfo.org.

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