The Bureau of Land Management’s Billings-based firefighting staff is nervous.
“We have conditions that are at all-time extremes in southeast Montana,” said Ken Schmid, state fire management officer for the BLM in Montana and the Dakotas. “Our drought indicators and weather statistics are showing that our fuels are as dry as they can get. We just want to make sure all outdoor recreationists are extremely cautious.”
The BLM is particularly concerned that with the state’s popular hunting seasons opening in October — such as the antelope, deer and elk rifle seasons — outdoorsmen and women take every precaution.
Although acknowledging that hunter-caused fires are few compared to other causes, Mike Dannenberg, BLM fire mitigation and education specialist, said the agency wants to do whatever it can to prevent fire starts.
“We want to be as safe as we can be,” he said.
Sending a crew out to just one fire can quickly cost thousands of dollars, so every fire that doesn’t start is a considerable savings.
No relief in sight
Fire managers may be particularly uneasy because it’s halfway through September and no measurable precipitation is in the forecast. Billings alone is about 5 inches below its normal annual precipitation of 10 inches.
“As far out as I can see, we’ll stay under this high pressure for at least two more weeks,” said Mike Kreyenhagen of the Northern Rockies Coordination Center in Missoula. “What else is killing us is there is no moisture recovery at night.”
Carmen Thomason, fire mitigation specialist for the BLM, said that was evident at the 10,000-acre Dugan fire burning south of Ekalaka.
“It burned really well at night,” she said. “And that’s typically when they lay down and we can catch up.”
Kreyenhagen said that normally by Sept. 21 a season-ending storm looms on the horizon. Often, a storm born in Alaska flows down and stalls over the state for a few days. To put a dent in the fire danger, the state needs three-quarters to an inch of precipitation spread out across a few days to allow for the moisture to raise humidity levels. But right now, a high-pressure system is stalled over the state, keeping warm and dry weather in the forecast.
Even worse is the possibility that the dry weather may extend into the first part of the winter.
“It’s not looking good,” Kreyenhagen said.
Change in the weather
The dry spell seems particularly unusual coming off of last year’s record-setting moisture. But it didn’t take long for the scenario to change.
“Our fire season started in January near Browning,” Schmid said. “We’ve had fires every month of this year that we’ve been involved with. So it’s been a much longer season than typical.”
Statistics show the difference that a year with little moisture makes.
In 2011, Montana recorded 1,335 wildland fires that burned across 168,010 acres.
This year, with the fire season still not over, the state has recorded 1,739 fires on 947,848 acres.
Wyoming has posted similar statistics. This year, the Cowboy State has had 624 fires burn 333,046 acres. Last year the number of fires was about the same — 680 — but only 135,878 acres were burned.
Montana and Wyoming are symptomatic of what has occurred across the United States this year. Twenty-four large fires were still burning this week, with more than three quarters in the Northwest — seven in Idaho, four in Montana, Wyoming and Washington.
So far in the U.S., 46,636 fires have burned 8.5 million acres. That compares to an average between 2003 and 2011 of 59,967 fires burning 6.4 million acres. So even though fire starts have dropped compared to the average, the acreage burned has risen.
Just in Montana, the BLM has spent more than $12 million fighting fires this year, Schmid said, compared to the average of about $8 million.
To help prevent fires, recreationists should avoid parking in tall grass, observe fire restrictions, be cautious with lanterns and chainsaws and carry firefighting equipment like a shovel, bucket, axe and fire extinguisher. A listing of fire restrictions by county can be found online at firerestrictions.org, or call the local public lands agency or county for more information.
Thomason also noted that people recreating in burned areas should be cautious around burned trees that may fall or loose soils that may slough off.
“We want people to be out recreating and enjoying public lands, but at the same time we want people to be careful,” Thomason said.