GREAT FALLS — Fire season in Montana usually picks up around July and sticks around until September, but it has been known to stretch those boundaries.
Many factors can contribute to a more intense fire season, such as strong winds, hotter temperatures, and dry ground. That dry ground includes what officials refer to as “fuel load,” and Cascade County Emergency Management Director Brad Call says that this year’s fuel load is notably large.
“That’s due to some of the excessive rains we’ve had this year. The rains were a little bit longer and a little bit heavier than normal, which caused a lot of grass growth, a lot of new plants, etc.,” Call explained. “Well, those are going to dry out as the season progresses and as the rains stop coming. Those two combinations produce a lot of what they call fuel load, and conditions are right for fires.”
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In the dog days of Montana summer, when the weather feels a lot like it does this week and your weather app is peppered with small yellow balls and numbers above 85, fires become more and more common. Luckily, there are a number of precautions that everyone can take to do their part in reducing the fire risk across the state.
“If you’re pulling a trailer, making sure your safety chains are pulled up. Never pull off the side of the road with a vehicle that’s been running, especially in the high grass or unmowed or unkempt areas, because your catalytic converter can catch the grass on fire,” said Call. “If you do happen to go camping, make sure you’re following the fire alert and whether or not burning is allowed. You can check on your county and state websites whether burning is allowed, and then of course, always extinguish fires with proper procedures. If it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to walk away from.”
Call said that his maps are predicting a particularly harsh fire season for parts of Western Montana, Idaho, and Eastern Washington, as well as patches here and there in the southern part of the Treasure State.
Especially this time of year, it’s important to pay attention to fire danger alerts and red flag warnings. Brad says that the way people act and think when outside should change as those warnings come out. A red flag warning should mean no campfires at all, or any outdoor burning of any kind, including leaf and refuse piles.
“We’re always prepared, and we’re always keeping our eyes open for things that are going on in the community, things that are being talked about both statewide and nationally as far as fire preparedness, but it’s really important that your behavior every single day matches the conditions,”
Call said when asked if his department and the other agencies that they work with do anything differently to prepare for fire season. “If you have any breezes or high winds, definitely curtail those kinds of activities. DES is always ready to go and always keeping their ear to the ground so to speak and seeing what’s out there and looking for changing conditions and national updates and state updates.”
DES will work with agencies including Great Falls Fire Rescue on some calls, Fire Rescue will return the favor sometimes. Great Falls Fire Marshal Dirk Johnson says that the main idea is just containing the fire and keeping people safe.
“We have our wildland truck that’s always ready in case we have to drive out in a field. We assist all the volunteers and they assist us on wildland fires and the surrounding areas,” Johnson said. “Especially if it’s close to the city, we definitely will help out and then they’ll help us out too. And that’s all through dispatch. The on-duty battalion chief can make the call if they want to send an engine or not.”
Call recommends that you monitor the Cascade County Disaster and Emergency Services website and Facebook page. They provide updates and notes about current events as it relates to the conditions outside, including wildfires, floods, and other natural disasters.