So far, the 2014 wildfire season in Montana has been defined more by what hasn’t happened than by what has.
Fires have burned as little as five percent of the yearly average acreage, saving millions in state fire suppression costs.
Bob Harrington, state forester for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said the DNRC has dropped down to “about half” of the staffing levels it has during the peak of the fire year.
“We typically bring on about 120 seasonal firefighters, and we’re probably down in engines, in terms of equipment, to about 40 or 50,” he said. “Of course, we have permanent staff that are spread all over the state still.”
As of Aug. 27, the DNRC responded to 239 fires in Montana, 6 percent more than its five-year average of 225. Despite the higher number, those fires have burned an estimated 13,416 acres, just 15 percent of the five-year average of 91,451 acres.
The Northern Rockies Coordination Center in Missoula, which helps manage and mobilize wildland fire resources throughout the region, reported a total of 1,346 fires for the season, compared to its 10-year average of 1,661 annually.
Numbers from the NRCC — which uses reports from fires reported by all agencies in Montana, whether local, state or federal — show an even smaller total percentage compared to years past. The 21,888 acres burned this season so far represent just five percent of the state’s 383,549-acre 10-year average.
By comparison, fires scorched 124,202 acres in 2013 and 2012, considered one of the worst fire years in Montana in a century, saw 1.2 million acres burned.
Less acreage burned means agencies spent far less money fighting fires this year.
Firefighting efforts this year spent only $1.8 million of the roughly $44.4 million in a fire suppression fund recently established by the Montana Legislature.
“Our total cost, that’s where you tend to really see it, even though we had slightly above average numbers, incident-wise,” Harrington said.
The remaining money will stay in the fund and roll over for use toward future firefighting efforts. The average spent from the fund is $19 million a year.
While updated cost totals weren’t available from the NRCC, the Associated Press reported that $6.6 million total had been spent on firefighting as of Aug. 14.
As with any fire season, weather was a huge factor.
“The two things that really stand out to me were the delayed start and the abrupt ending,” said Bryan Henry, NRCC meteorologist.
He pointed to a late start thanks to a winter and spring that featured record snow.
A deluge that brought several inches of rain in many areas last week effectively drew the season to a close.
Those, coupled with lower-than-average temperatures, more rain throughout the season and less wind severely dropped the potential for the fires that blew up before crews could beat them back.
“We didn’t have the extremely hot, dry and windy days that we typically see even though August wasn’t really extremely wet until the end,” said David Church, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Billings office.
Henry said he wasn’t aware of any “wind events,” a regular occurrence during fire season in which gusts surge to 40 or 50 mph and push fires faster than firefighters can deal with them, for the year.
Staff with the DNRC and NRCC believed that, while it started late, the fire season still had the potential to get going in July, through August and into September as fuels dried out.
A handful of challenging fires — the 1,360-acre Calf fire in Garfield County, the 3,500-acre Montgomery fire in Rosebud County, the 1,646-acre Thompson River complex still burning in Lolo National Forest and a 900-acre blaze in Treasure County, among others — popped up later in the summer.
But through good weather, aggressive firefighting and a little luck, no massive fires materialized, while the late-August rains effectively doused many lingering concerns.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a year like this year where we legitimately started up and then just ended,” Henry said.
In the Billings area, Derek Yeager, fire program manager with the DNRC’s Southern Land Office, said his office has responded to about 30 percent of what it normally does and that there have only been three fires within his jurisdiction that topped 100 acres.
The Southern Land Office covers Big Horn, Carbon, Musselshell, Stillwater, Sweet Grass, Treasure and Yellowstone counties.
He credited much of the success to local fire departments, which his office relies on for initial and continued response, aggressively tackling fires as they sprung up.
“Those are the guys that drop whatever they’re doing, wherever they’re at, and go out and attack these fires,” Yeager said. “If it weren’t for those guys doing that kind of good work, we’d be talking about an entirely different summer.”
Harrington said that the DNRC has dropped down to “about half” of the staffing levels it has during the peak of the fire year.
While they say the August storms significantly boosted the odds that new large fires won’t start, both Harrington and Yeager cautioned that there’s always the possibility of a new one breaking out and that Montana fire season typically runs into mid September and can sometimes reach into October.
“It’s been a slow year, which is great” Yeager said. “The economy needed it, the landowners needed it. But we’re not skipping out on this year entirely just yet. There’s still time for something to happen.”
Henry said that even though forecasts say it’s not likely, a week of hot and dry conditions could put some areas, including parts of Eastern Montana, back into notable fire danger quickly.
Next year, he said, could hold the potential for a much more severe fire season if forecasts hold true.
“I’m actually concerned about next year,” he said. “It’s a good set up. We’re likely heading into another El Nino, which can lead to below-normal winter snowpack. Those winters can be drier than normal and warmer than normal and the lesser snowpack means it could potentially come off sooner than normal next year.”
Officials said that the calmer fire year also gives everybody the chance to do a little more review of past and current efforts, as well as the opportunity to get ready for next year.
“These are exactly the times to go out and work to protect your property and incorporate a lot of the fire techniques that the fire departments and our folks try to relate to the people with property in harm’s way,” Harrington said.