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Montana drought committee hears update on weather, fire risk

Posted: 9:35 PM, Jul 22, 2019
Updated: 2019-07-23 10:22:57-04

HELENA – Leaders say weather conditions in Montana are not as dry as they could be, but the fire danger across the state is likely to grow starting this week.

The Governor’s Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee met Monday in Helena. Representatives from the Montana State Library, National Weather Service and Northern Rockies Coordination Center were there to discuss current drought and wildfire conditions in the state.

Currently, much of western Montana is abnormally dry, and some areas in the northwest – particularly Lincoln County – are in moderate drought. Last month, parts of northeastern Montana were in drought, but the situation there has improved since the area has received more precipitation than usual in late June and early July.

Michael Richmond, a predictive services meteorologist with the Northern Rockies Coordination Center , said the wildfire risk across Montana would be much worse if it hadn’t been a relatively cool spring and summer.

“We have been very fortunate in Montana,” he said.

That could change starting this week, as the weather is expected to be much warmer and dry. One issue could be lightning strikes from several days ago, which might still be smoldering and could grow if fuels dry out.

“We have had a lot of lightning over the past several weeks, especially over the timbered areas in the mountains – thousands of lightning strikes – so there certainly would be some holdover fires that are just sleeping in the dead fuels, just kind of creeping around,” Richmond said.

“This kind of weather will make them more active, but we’ll also be able to see where they are and do initial attack.”

Richmond said, even though recent thunderstorms have brought precipitation, that moisture may not consistent enough to substantially reduce fire risk.

Long-range forecasts from the National Weather Service suggest western Montana is likely to see higher temperatures than average through October. Richmond said that could extend the fire season later into fall.

Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, who chairs the committee, asked that the public to continue to be vigilant about preventing human-caused fires, regardless of the current lower fire risk.

“We know it does not take much to totally flip things on their head,” he said.

-Jonathon Ambarian reporting for MTN News