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Critical fire weather conditions in place

Posted at 6:33 PM, Aug 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-17 20:42:00-04

MISSOULA — Historically, mid-August through early September is the peak of wildfire season across western Montana.

That’s why the recent designation by the National Weather Service of Critical Fire Weather is of particular concern.

Now, of course, hot temperatures and low humidity play their part, but the biggest factor which typically always seems to be the case are those thunderstorms.

According to Travis Booth with the National Weather Service in Missoula, “Our main concern is actually with any thunderstorm activity that pops up. Some of these thunderstorms will be relatively dry and have gusty winds, so if we do have lightning followed by wind, and we continue to have these hot and dry conditions, fires could easily get started and then spread quickly.”

Monsoonal moisture from the southwest is running into a very dry air mass, which is the catalyst for dry thunderstorms, or thunderstorms which contain little to know moisture at the surface.

The opportunity for these storms will come in waves over the next several days.

“We do have a chance of thunderstorms this evening through the overnight hours, and then a better chance on Tuesday afternoon and again on Wednesday afternoon," says Booth. "As far as thunderstorm coverage, it will be most focused from about I-90 southward into southwest Montana.”

This weather scenario is of particular interest to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Fire Prevention Public Relations Officer, Kristin Mortenson says their awareness is always heightened during the hot summer months, but the potential for lightning brings even more acute awareness, “We are monitoring that weather, specifically watching where those lightning strikes might occur, where those winds are going to come from. That definitely provides information to those that are on those fires so that they can make informed decisions on those fires.”

Mortenson adds that extra air and engine patrols for a few days after lightning events in case any potential trouble spots get out of hand. With a little luck, cloud-to-ground lightning strikes will be held to a minimum over the next several days, but of course, they will continue to be monitored closely as each strike could become a big issue.