Though most of Montana has received below-average snowfall so far this season, there's still plenty of time before the state should be concerned about a dry fire season, experts say.
“We’re only about halfway through the snow year at this point; we generally see snow precipitation pick up going into March and April,” said Todd Chambers, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Billings office. “It takes one or two big systems, and we can really improve those numbers.”
“Just because that’s where we're at right now doesn’t mean that’s where we’ll end up.”
Overall, the United States Drought Monitor currently estimates 437,692 Montanans are living in drought areas, compared to this time last year when drought areas were relegated to the southern halves of Beaverhead and Madison counties and an Idaho border sliver of Sanders County.
Drought conditions in the central and eastern part of Montana are hemmed in by Park, Sweet Grass, Golden Valley, Musselshell, Garfield, McCone and Richland counties, which are in many instances completely drought-free as of the monitor’s Feb. 17 update.
North of those counties the pattern continues, but south to the border with Wyoming and creeping toward the Dakotas is a different story.
The worst drought conditions right now can be found in the majority of Big Horn County, as well as large portions of southern Rosebud County, eastern Custer County and the majority of Powder River County.
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Those areas are experiencing “moderate drought,” the second-lowest ranking on a five-category scale, with the worst conditions designated “exceptional.”
Chambers said that El Nino weather patterns like the U.S. is currently facing tend to deposit more moisture west of the Continental Divide.
The Bighorn River Basin is sitting at 73 percent of yearly average snowpack, compared to 106 percent this time last year. Snowpack in the Tongue River Basin is about 53 percent of the seasonal average, compared to 96 percent last year. The Powder River Basin is at 59 percent, compared to 113 percent last year. The upper portion of the Yellowstone River Basin has fared better, coming in at 90 percent of average compared to 111 percent last year. The lower Yellowstone River Basin south of Billings has snowpack levels at 68 percent, compared to 101 percent last year.
One of the most important factors in determining fire risk is fuel moisture, a measurement of moisture in various fire fuels like trees and grasses, said John Grassy, a public information officer for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Drought conditions are also considered, as is fuel density.
“As we have in a number of years, we could come out of the winter in not particularly good shape with snowpack but then it could rain for four weeks,” Grassy said. “The fire danger, the drying process could be set back that much."
“There’s still enough time left that it would really be premature to panic or really be concerned or even make any predictions.”