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Slow start to wildfire season in Montana

Posted: 6:59 PM, Jul 22, 2019
Updated: 2019-07-22 23:19:23-04

MISSOULA – We’re 22 days into the month of July, and so far, we’ve seen only a few small lightning-caused fires in all of western Montana.

Will that change as warmer dry weather takes over? Meteorologist Russ Thomas visited with officials at the Northern Rockies Coordination Center to get the latest forecast.

Unlike the last two years, wildfire season is not off to a blazing fast start. The air is clear, and periodic precipitation has kept our surroundings green.

Northern Rockies Predictive Services Meteorologist Coleen Haskell says their 2019 forecast remains on track.

“As we do our monthly outlooks for the rest of the fire season, and going into next fall, the expectation is that most of the geographic area will be near normal,” she explained.

However, this by no means is a cut-and-dried forecast. There are a number of factors that could throw a monkey-wrench into that prediction moving forward.

Recent lightning storms still have hot spots with the potential to surface as temperatures heat up, and winds pick up in coming weeks. And more lightning strikes — with little to no rain — are likely in the immediate future.

“We’re looking for some lightning in the area and gusty outflow winds of course, so if we do get any fire ignitions from this lightning, the winds will definitely fan the flames,” Haskell said.

Up until this point in the summer, our weather pattern has blocked off extended periods of high pressure, thanks to a series of cold fronts that have moved across the Northern Rockies.

While these fronts have come with lightning and wind, they’ve also held heat waves at bay.

Haskell says that the latest climate prediction services forecasts continue to show the current El Nino weather pattern to continue into the fall, meaning our fire season could extend beyond the average end date.

“We’re in a weak El Nino pattern and traditionally in the fall here in the Northern Rockies that means a warmer and drier fall, Haskell told MTN News.

”Even though we’re getting a late start to fire season, it could be just developing and continue into the early fall months.”

As is always the case, long range forecasts are variable, but the fact that we can still see smoke-free surroundings in late July is a breath of fresh air compared to our recent Julys.

Haskell added that while fire season is off to a slow start across much of the northwest very dry conditions in western Washington and Oregon could lead to fires that would likely drive smoke into the valleys of western Montana.

-Meteorologist Russ Thomas