MISSOULA - The weekend of May 5, 2023, is expected to bring some thunderstorms in Western Montana but until then, a few calm days for prescribed burns on the Lolo National Forest.
Spring and fall are both optimal windows for controlled burns, which is why residents in the Missoula Valley have begun to see smoke coming from Lolo National Forest.
"When conditions come together correctly, it's what we call a prescription," Lolo National Forest Supervisor Carolyn Upton says. "We have ranges of criteria, for wind and relative humidity and temperature. And when it comes together well, the weather cooperates, we call that a window."
Upton says the next burns will likely occur in Pattee Canyon and the Nine Mile District on Wednesday, May 3 or Thursday, May 4.
Prescribed burns are helpful for ensuring healthy habitats and reducing the risk of wildfires in the Wildland Urban Interface where public land meets private land. Those are the areas that are being targeted for prescribed burns.
Upton says they assess the amount of fuel in these areas, which includes the amount of flammable wood, brush and other debris.
The Lolo National Forest establishes burn plans, that assess the conditions, location and objective of a prescribed burn.
“That's all in our burn plan and we do look at that — it could be a year or more in advance — waiting until these windows come together, so we can meet those objectives," Upton says.
Another aspect of the burn plan is a fire interval, which shows how often a certain area's landscape can sustain a low-intensity fire. This will determine whether certain spots are hit two years in a row.
The Lolo National Forest relies on several community partners at the county, state and federal level to put together resources and employees to increase their capacity for burns.
"One of our most important partners is the National Weather Service," Upton says. "They give us weather forecasts before we do any of these activities, and we're talking to them throughout our burn activities to make sure we know what's going on in the moment, and what's coming up as well. And we can make timely decisions as to is there a change in wind coming? Is there a thunderstorm coming? And we adjust accordingly.”
Upton wants to remind people who are recreating during the spring window to be aware of where they are and where and when burns may be happening. She encourages recreators to check their website, Facebook or call the Lolo National Forest office at 406-329-3750 for more information before heading outside.
"There's lots of ways folks can get information, and I would ask that, again, that folks have an awareness of what's going on around them so that they can manage their safety and the safety of our crews out there as well," she says.
While the closure of the spring burn window is dependent on weather conditions, Upton says they expect to stop before Memorial Day.