HELENA, Mont. — Federal, state, local and tribal fire managers said Friday they're ready for Montana's upcoming fire season, but stopped short of predicting how many acres might burn.
After discussing this winter's snowpack, the rate at which it melted, temperature trends and expected weather patterns, meteorologist Colleen Haskell said most of Montana has "normal" potential for significant wildfires, while northwestern Montana's potential is "above average." The U.S. Drought Monitor classified northwestern Montana as being in a moderate drought.
Haskell cautioned she was not predicting the number of acres that might burn, but rather conditions that could lead to fires.
Last year, Montana was expected to have an "above average" fire season and while it was drier and warmer, the lightning storms remained to the south of the state, leading to a relatively quiet fire season, Haskell said.
The state's seven biggest fire seasons have happened since 2000, including the 2017 season that was caused in part by a flash drought, after the state was expected to have "normal" fire conditions. About $400 million was spent fighting fires that burned about 2,200 square miles and 140 structures.
Sudden drought and thunderstorms are harder to predict, Haskell said.
"Most of the acreage (burned) is due to ignitions by lightning," Haskell said. "Unfortunately, we can't predict that more than seven to 10 days out," adding that more research is being done.
A weak El Nino pattern is expected to mean a cooler and wetter summer this year, but a warmer and drier fall, she said.
"During July and August the expectation is (the wetter weather) will come with at least some lightning," Haskell said. "So could that mean we have more ignitions but smaller fires? Possibly."
Agency heads told Montana Gov. Steve Bullock their personnel were trained, their equipment was ready and they were prepared to work together to fight fires in the state.
Bullock said firefighter safety, communication and coordination among agencies are the top priorities.
"No wildland fire agency can do it on its own," he said.
Officials suggested more resources needed to be directed into preventing catastrophic fires such as conducting prescribed burns, other forest management, community preparation and hiring more year-round firefighters.
"We have to treat our forests in order to save the forests," said Mike Granger, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fire management officer at the C.M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in north-central Montana.
The longer fire season is making it difficult for agencies to use college students and teachers that have their summers off to fight fires, said John Tubbs, director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. He said firefighters are needed into October.
"We're gonna have to go to legislators and governors and presidents and say: 'This is more of a full-time job than we've had in the past and we're going to have to resource for it,'" Tubbs said.
Communities have a role, as well.
"We need people to understand that there are not enough resources in Montana for us to firefight our way out of this," said Mike DeGrosky, the DNRC's Fire Protection Bureau chief. He said communities are going to have to plan for wildfires in case outside crews aren't available.
While the snowpack and cooler temperatures look promising right now, "it can change so quickly," said Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney.
The good news is the various agencies are prepared to work with each other, he said.
"We're not going to always agree with each other, but we agree on one thing — we're going to be there to help each other," Cooney said.