Meteorologist Predicts ‘Normal’ Wildland Fire Season in Montana

At Gov. Greg Gianforte’s 2024 fire season briefing, experts said residents shouldn’t be lulled by predictions of a “normal” fire season, which is certain to be more intense than last year, especially in northwest Montana

By Tristan Scott
The River Road East Fire burning six miles east of Plains in Sanders County in August 2023. Image courtesy of InciWeb

Last summer, the worst wildland fire in Montana ignited in mid-August, torching more than 17,000 acres near the community of Paradise and destroying 64 structures, including 15 homes. Dubbed the River Road East fire, it blew up near Highway 200 in between surges of monsoon moisture, catching residents off guard and commanding the attention of hundreds of firefighters who fought the blaze until the remnants of Hurricane Hilary settled over the region and extinguished the fire in earnest.

“That basically ended fire season,” Dan Borsum, a Missoula-based forecaster with the Northern Rockies Coordinating Center, told Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte and agency administrators at Tuesday morning’s 2024 Fire Season Briefing in Helena.

This year, Borsum said forecasters are predicting a weak monsoon. Although precipitation in May and June has helped create a buffer, he said residents should prepare for a warmer, dryer summer, and a wildland fire season that stretches past Labor Day.

Given its weak snowpack, northwest Montana holds the highest potential in the state to exhibit severe wildland fire activity, Borsum said, adding that “it hasn’t quite crossed that threshold for me to put it at above-normal.”

“I do want to stress that a normal fire season could still be 100,000 acres more than last year,” he said, referring to the short and subdued fire season in 2023, when 2,400 fires burned 138,000 acres across the northern Rockies. That’s compared to a median over the last decade of 2,637 fires burning 179,000 acres, and an average of 3,077 fires burning 470,000 acres.

“So people who perceived that we didn’t have a very bad fire season last year are correct, because even if we were to double last year’s season we’d still be pretty close to zero,” he said.

Although 2023 was a relatively subdued season, which Borsum said “shut off hard” by Oct. 22, he said residents should prepare for a more prolonged fire season this summer.

“And the likelihood that we are going to see a hard shutoff in the middle of August is not going to happen this year,” Borsum continued. “So, people are going to need to get prepared for thinking about living with fire season into September.”

Gov. Greg Gianforte visits with Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino at Old Steel Bridge Fishing Access on the Flathead River in Kalispell for a briefing on flooding in the Flathead Valley on June 20, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In Gianforte’s introductory remarks, he repeated a message that’s become a common refrain since his administration took the reins of the state’s land management agencies four years ago: he pledged a commitment to extinguishing all wildfires through aggressive initial attack strategies, and stepping up prevention efforts to stop human-caused fires from igniting on a landscape that is increasingly warmer and drier.

Gianforte also commended the 2023 Montana Legislature for doubling the cap on the state’s fire suppression fund, and assured residents that the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation “stands ready to fight fire wherever it occurs under our jurisdiction.”

So far this year, 405 wildland fires have burned 5,262 acres, which is slightly less than years past. Nearly all those fires were human-caused, Gianforte said.

“We can and will do better,” he said. “The best way we can support our wildland firefighters and mitigate the risk to their health is by preventing wildfires from happening in the first place.”

Borsum, whose wildland fire forecast summary provided an outlook for the remainder of summer, admitted that conveying the risk of fire on the landscape is a challenging task during a cool, rainy weather pattern.

“It’s really hard to talk about fire when you’re seeing weather like we saw yesterday and today, and while that is going to give us a little bit of a buffer, I don’t think it really changes the story,” he said. “But at least it buys us a few weeks into July before we really see the fire season kicking up.”

Borsum said forecast models reveal that the months of July and August will be warmer and drier than normal across Montana; however, “when everything is added up, we are expecting what would be a normal fire season for Montana,” he said, “but I certainly think that means more acreage than last year.”

As the drought forecasts take shape, Borsum stressed the amount of moisture missing from the landscape, particularly on the western edge of the state, where he said “a lot of places are missing 4-8 inches of moisture compared to the last two years.”

“And that’s substantial. It’s affecting the water tables, the groundwater, the grasses. Rain events like we just had are going to help grasses in the short term. They aren’t going to dry out as quickly. But as we get into those sustained heat waves, I don’t know where the larger vegetation is going to draw the moisture from. So, it’s kind of a warning sign that there could be a real breaker switch that all of a sudden, if we get a real heat wave, we’re in trouble.”

“So we are holding on to moisture a little better, and that is something on the front end of fire season that keeps it from just picking up and going in July and maybe we have additional time to get everybody ready,” he said, before adding: “While we may have this buffer to keep us from raging into wildfire season in July, certainly expect to be living with it in September.”

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