Montana’s slow fire season may be heating up

HELENA (AP) — The slow start to Montana’s fire season this summer has been a relief with the state still recovering from the record amount spent fighting fires last year. But that may soon change with new warnings popping up after a dry July.

Red-flag conditions exist across much of Montana, with high temperatures, low humidity and strong wind gusts forecast through Friday, according to the National Weather Service. That’s prime fire weather after a July that saw less than one-third of the average rain that falls in 13 towns and cities across the state.

Until now, Montana has been largely spared as major fires burn elsewhere across the West. Most of the state is drought-free, compared with last year’s record-setting fire season when 85 percent of the land was dry or in drought.

“Last year was exceptional,” said Chris Barth, a spokesman for the Northern Rockies Coordination Center. “We are roughly about a month behind where fire activity was last year.”

In 2017, Montana spent at least $74 million for its share in fighting fires across 2,134 square miles. Both the expense and the land burned were records for the state, which contributed to a deep budget hole out of which the state is only now climbing.

Last week, there was about $4 million in a firefighting reserve fund that held more than $60 million before last year’s fire season. However, higher-than-expected revenues reported late last month will give the state more of a cushion for firefighting costs this year, officials said.

Crystal Beckman, a fire information officer for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said the agency’s instructions are to be fiscally responsible but do what it has to do to protect lives, property and natural resources.

As conditions ready for a late fire season in the Northern Rocky Mountains, personnel and equipment that had been sent elsewhere to fight fires are now returning to the region, said Barth and Beckman. Those resources will be focused on quickly responding to fires to prevent them from spreading.

There were 16 such initial attacks Wednesday across the region that includes Montana and parts of Idaho, North Dakota and Wyoming.

With September’s shorter days and cooler nights less than a month away, it seems unlikely that even a late fire season will rival last year’s record-setter, but the experts say it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen — especially during August’s dog days.

“We have the full month of August to work hard and keep the fires we have small,” Beckman said.

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