NewsMissoula County


Officials watching for new wildfires following Western MT lightning storms

Posted at 8:03 AM, Jul 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-24 14:15:46-04

MISSOULA – The thunderstorms and lightning that hit parts of Western Montana earlier this week has fire officials staying vigilant to watch for trouble.

After a quiet weather day on Monday, Mother Nature ended the day with a bang.

“We did have a storm roll through with quite a bit of lightning — a pretty impressive show — and we are expecting a few holdovers. Maybe a few smokes,” explained DNRC Fire Prevention Specialist Joran Koppen.

The Bitterroot and Missoula valleys — along with surrounding higher elevations — was peppered with cloud-to-ground lightning strikes — 100 to be exact — late Monday evening.

Lightning from a thunderstorm on 7.22.19. (photo credit: Kathy Kidwell)

Koppen says the fire starts from the lightning have been — to this point — benign and were quickly attended to.

However, storms like this one have the potential to spawn many holdovers in the days to come and that has officials with the Lolo National Forest on their toes.

“We’re closely monitoring the lightning maps, you know where we may have a high concentration of strikes.” Lolo National Forest spokeswoman Kate German told MTN News.

“When we have an area that has been hit hard with lightning, we will do a flyover of that area,” she added.

Kate Jerman Lolo NF Spokeswoman
Lolo National Forest spokeswoman Kate German (MTN News photo)

The Lolo National Forest also has four active lookout stations — in Seeley Lake, the Nine Mile area, Superior, and in the Plains/Thompson Falls area — which Jerman says are pivotal in detecting fires.

A key component in the process of monitoring and assessing wildland fire is constant coordination between the DNRC and the Lolo National Forest. They meet once a week for a briefing.

“If the fire range sign is going to go from low to moderate, to high, very high — all the way up to extreme — we talk about the resources that we have in the valley, the conditions that we’re in, what we need to do as agencies to try and prevent the forest fires,” Koppen told MTN News.

Joran Koppen
Montana DNRC Fire Prevention Specialist Joran Koppen. (MTN News photo)

Both Koppen and Jerman stress that one of the key components in early identification of fire starts is the public. They ask for vigilance from the community especially with the expectation of an extended dry weather pattern on the way.

“We rely on the public to call in smoke reports, that’s really important. The public can do that by calling into Emergency Services or they can call the Missoula Dispatch Center,” Jerman advised.

The hope is his team effort between agencies and the public will hopefully help in keeping fire starts contained in coming weeks, as fire season almost certainly becomes more active.

Jerman says July has seen an uptick in fire starts with eight human and 10 lightning started fires.

-Meteorologist Russ Thomas