Montana leads nation with most, largest fires burning; Dahl fire quiet

2012-07-01T23:00:00Z 2012-09-07T12:58:05Z Montana leads nation with most, largest fires burning; Dahl fire quietBy BRETT FRENCH french@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

After preparing rigorously for the appearance of a cold front containing lightning and high winds, crews on the Dahl fire south of Roundup were left with little to do Sunday.

“The storm took an abrupt turn,” said Dixie Dies, fire information officer. “The lightning that was headed toward us turned east.

“Sometimes you prepare for a big show and it doesn’t happen.”

Also on the plus side, the crews were able to complete 75 percent of the containment line around the 22,000-acre fire. Officials were also able to confirm the number of residences burned, raising the number to 73 and 150 outbuildings.

Although the Dahl fire was subdued, Montana took an unenviable lead in the nation as the state with the most large wildland fires burning.

The Big Sky State has a smoky haze caused by 10 large fires burning, topping Colorado, with seven, and Utah, with eight, according to information from the National Interagency Fire Center.

Nationally, more than 900,000 acres have burned or are burning. Hot, dry weather, the promise of lightning and steady winds threatened to dramatically expand fires burning in Eastern Montana on Sunday, as well as create new ones.

Colorado has garnered the most national attention, largely because so many structures have burned — 722 at last count, compared with 275 in Montana. But Montana’s large fires had surpassed Colorado’s in acreage burned – 207,900, compared with Colorado’s 151,800.

At the Dahl fire, Montana’s second-largest fire, crews had braced for the onslaught of a possibly powerful afternoon thunderstorm.

“We’re expecting the worst, and we’re ready for it,” Dies said. “We’re not dropping our guard by any means.”

Although lightning skirted the Roundup area, Dies said the Helena region “got absolutely pounded. So fires will be popping up there all over the place.”

The cost to date for the Dahl fire is $1.6 million, according to NIFC’s data. The state’s largest fire, the 157,000-acre Ash Creek fire, had cost $1.5 million as of Sunday.

In Wyoming, the 45,000-acre Fontenelle fire burning on the Bridger-Teton National Forest was the largest wildland fire in the state. More than 420 people, 22 engines and six helicopters were committed to the fire that has cost $1.7 million to fight.

Six other fires are burning in Wyoming, with the Arapaho fire in Platte County rapidly growing to 36,000 acres.

Closer to Billings, the Index fire near Cooke City was estimated at 210 acres. Travelers along the Beartooth Scenic Highway between Red Lodge and Cooke City are being escorted by a pilot car through the area of the fire where smoke can drift across the highway. The nearby Fox Creek Campground has been closed to the public.

Parts of Montana, along with many areas across the nation, have suffered through what seems to be an unusually long, hot stretch for so early in the summer.

“The only previous June heat waves in U.S. history that compare to the current one were those of 1934, 1936, and 1954,” wrote weather historian Christopher C. Burt in a blog post. “The summer of 1934 went on to be the warmest on record for the U.S. (74.6 degrees June-August average) and July 1936 the single hottest month on record (77.4 degrees average).”

Burt went on to write: “Ominously, some of the June records that have so far been set this month have eclipsed those of June 1934 and 1936 (1954 turned out be a summer of only slightly above long-term average normal temperature).”

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