Don’t be fooled

Recent rains not enough to offset dry conditions
Deb Hill
Wednesday, June 8, 2022
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Anika (Tuss) Peila stands in front of a prescribed burn in Petroleum County, part of her former position as a wildland firefighter. Now Peila has a new position with DNRC, helping prepare communities to mitigate fire danger. Photo courtesy of Anika Peila

Recent rains may have greened things up, but Fergus County is still running quite a bit behind normal precipitation, and predictions for the summer wildfire season remain worrisome.

According to the National Weather Service, even with the recent rains, Lewistown is still over 2 inches behind normal precipitation for the water year, which starts Oct. 1, and about an inch and a half below normal for the calendar year. The drought monitor shows most of Central Montana remains in the severe drought category.

“We are better off than we were last May. Due to the cool, wet spring the ‘green up’ will be prolonged a bit, but it can also add more fuel as late summer dries the grasses out. We still have reservoirs and springs that are dry,” said Fergus County Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator Ryan Peterson.

“The large fuels are still extremely dry,” said Don Pyrah, rural fire specialist with the Department of Natural Resource Conservation. “We call them the ‘thousand hour’ fuels. These large fuels, like trees, take four lag times to recover their moisture equilibrium. That’s 4,000 hours. Basically what it means is that we would need above normal moisture all summer to get out of the above normal fire danger we are in now.”

While there haven’t been any significant fires in the last month, both Peterson and Pyrah say Central Montana communities should be prepared for another difficult fire season. 

“We are getting calls from property owners wondering what they can do to prepare, to make their homes more fire safe,” Peterson said.

The good news is DNRC has hired a new position at the Lewistown office with a goal to do just that. 

Community Preparedness and Fire Prevention Specialist Anika (Tuss) Peila is just two weeks into her new job, but eventually she hopes to be a resource for property owners looking to mitigate their fire danger.

“I’ll be doing home assessments and working with the DNRC forester and seasonal workforce to help thin around homes,” she said.

Working in fire prevention is a new role for Peila, who has spent many years in fire suppression.

“I started as a firefighter on an engine crew in Miles City in 2006,” Peila said. “I went on to serve on helitack crews. I worked two seasons as a firefighter in northern Arizona for the Forest Service and then served with the Lewistown BLM helitack.”

Those many years fighting fires have given Peila deep experience with the worst-case wildfire scenarios.

“It’s gotten so much scarier over the years, as fire behavior has changed,” she said, referencing the increasing size and destructive nature of recent wildfires.

Now, though, she’ll be looking at things from a new perspective.

“I’m eager to get out and work with the public, to be a resource to help with fire prevention,” she said.

“Preparedness is a different aspect than suppression,” agreed Pyrah. “Eventually we will have it set up that homeowners can call Anika for advice on how to make their individual homes and properties better able to withstand wildfire.”

In addition to working with homeowners, Pyrah suggested it is time to update Fergus County’s community wildfire protection plan, created in 2004. Much has changed since then, especially with regard to drought and fire behavior. Areas deemed at low risk from wildland fire in 2004, including Coffee Creek and Denton, have recently had devastating fires, thanks in part to the ongoing drought.

“It’s the extremely dry conditions that led, for example, to how fast the Moccasin fire expanded,” Pyrah said. “Since we’ve had a little rain things are greening up, we expect fire activity to drop, at least until the grasses dry out again.

Residents seeking burn permits or information about burning can contact Peterson at 535-8118.

Those seeking information about community preparedness or fire prevention can contact Peila at 535-5119.