Adding fuel to a quiet fire season

Abundant grasses drying quickly across the region
By: 
JACQUES RUTTEN
News-Argus Staff
Wednesday, July 25, 2018

A field of burned hay bales east of Roy serves as a reminder wildfire season is here.  Abundant spring rains followed by hot, dry conditions have increased the risk of fire danger in Central Montana. 

Courtesy Photo 

 

So far so good, but still a long way to go. 

That’s how you might sum up the local fire season up to this point. 

Above normal winter snowpack, followed by a wet early summer have resulted in a bumper hay crop and a quiet start to the fire season. 

But as so often happens around the Fourth of July in central and eastern Montana, the abundant rains of May and June came to a halt; temperatures began climbing into the 90s; the thick green grasses began turning brown, and conditions have set up for what could be another long fire season. 

“We had a good rainy spring that has helped keep fire activity down for the early part of the season,” said Jonathan Moor, public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Land Management.  

“Precipitation through early summer has been running above average across Fergus County and parts of Central Montana,” added Paul Nutter, Senior Meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Great Falls.

But weather watchers and fire officials said conditions are changing quickly. 

 “A wet spring with lots of hay is great for producers, but if we get a sudden dry out, you have a lot of fuel on the ground,” said Moor. “It can impact fire activity later in the season.” 

“Grasslands and lower elevations are curing and are considered ready to accept fire,” added Nutter. “Should there be sparks from haying or harvesting – if a swather hits a rock or something like that – the grasslands are receptive to new fire starts.” 

Fergus County Fire Warden and Sheriff Troy Eades said there have been 16 fires since May 1. The largest was 142 acres and occurred off Hwy. 19 near Roy. Most local fires have been caused by equipment operating, and have been contained quickly.  

 “People are cutting hay low to the ground, a sickle bar hits a rock and the next thing you know you have a fire,” said Eades. “What I find significant is that all but two of the fires have been 10 acres or less, which means landowners and rural firefighters are getting on them quick and getting them out. I can’t say enough good about our rural firefighters.” 

Last year at this time was a much different story for wildfires, especially in neighboring Petroleum and Garfield Counties. First came the 5,000-acre Crying Fire north of Winnett around July 19.  A week later, the Lodgepole Complex exploded into the largest wildfire of the year. When the smoke had finally cleared, the Lodgepole Fire had torched 270,000 acres along the Musselshell River and east along Hwy. 200. The cost for firefighting efforts was more than $6 million. 

Eades said he participates in a weekly fire restrictions call, involving county fire wardens and representatives of various state and federal agencies. At this point, there are no immediate plans to implement severe fire restrictions, but Eades said he has the authority to issue daily burning bans, which give him more flexibility than a county-wide restriction, which must be kept in place for a longer period of time. 

“If weather is not conducive to burning, I am going to shut it off,” he said. “I have the ability to do that on a day-to-day basis.” 

Burning permits must be obtained from the sheriff’s office, and Eades reminds people to use extreme caution when burning at this time of year. He said if someone’s fire gets out of control, “they could be financially responsibility for suppression efforts.” 

Moor said the BLM also encourages people to be “firewise.” 

“Don’t drive in tall, dry grass or park in those areas. Hot undercarriages can ignite a fire. We always encourage producers to be careful with equipment. And for anyone who is out, be sure to have tools with you so you can put out a small start. Things like a shovel, water and fire extinguisher are all useful tools to have in your truck or your piece of equipment.” 

Nutter said the one-month outlook for August is calling for a “better chance of above average temperatures” and an equal chance that precipitation will be at, above or below normal. Typically at this time of year, we have warm days, with low relative humidity and breezy winds,” he said. 

Eades said they will continue monitoring the weather conditions, and be ready to respond when wildfires begin.  

“We’ll prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” 

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