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Moisture levels in vegetation across much of Montana have sunk to historic lows.

In parts of Yellowstone Park, forests are drier than they were in 1988, a nightmare fire season that blackened vast acres of mountain landscape. Throughout Montana, things are worse now than in 1994 and 2000, other years memorable for the scope of devastation.

"We're seeing moisture levels in the single digits," said Pat Mullaney, fire-management specialist for the Bureau of Land Management. "That's absolutely phenomenal. We never used to see single-digit moisture levels."

According to U.S. Forest Service information, moisture in the 1,000-hour fuels — trees larger than 3 inches in diameter — is in the 6 to 10 percent range in a broad swath down the center of Montana, including Billings. In the eastern edge of the state, it's a little better at between 11 and 15 percent.

Normal levels Normally, moisture levels this time of year would be in the 11 to 13 percent range, said Darrell Kurk of the Montana Department of State Lands.

"I've never seen it this dry," said Kurk, a veteran of 24 years on the fire lines.

On Tuesday morning, the National Weather Service issued red-flag warnings, indicating dangerous fire weather, from its Billings and Glasgow offices.

Stage II fire restrictions are in effect for Carbon, Stillwater and Sweetgrass counties, the Gallatin National Forest and the Beartooth District of the Custer National Forest.

At Stage II, no campfires are permitted, and smoking is restricted to enclosed spaces or in areas barren of vegetation within a 3-foot perimeter. Chain saws and other equipment powered by internal combustion engines are prohibited between 1 p.m. and 1 a.m. Motorized vehicles are permitted only on roads and trails.

Less severe counties Yellowstone, Big Horn, Musselshell and Treasure counties are under Stage I restrictions, which are less severe. There is a good chance that Yellowstone, Big Horn and Musselshell counties will be elevated to Stage II at a meeting of fire officials next Monday, Kurk said.

"It's crispy," said Stacey Barta, Sweet Grass County's noxious weed coordinator. "It would be pretty easy for a fire to take off now."

And pretty dangerous, Mullaney said.

Fires in trees stressed by five years of drought and baked in the July heat have created some extreme behaviors in the Missouri Breaks, he said. In normal fire situations blackened logs are left behind. Fires burned so intensely in the Breaks earlier this month that ash was all that remained.

The Northern Rockies Fire Coordination Center issued an alert on Tuesday warning firefighters that fire danger throughout the region generally exceeds historic levels.

"Heavy fuels are consistently being measured at twice the dryness of normal years," the alert said. "Observed fire behavior has been extreme on July fires in all parts of the area and has equaled fire behavior usually only observed much later in the fire season in drought years. Most fires in timbered areas have become fast-moving crown fires with extreme resistance to control."

Frontal assaults on fires have been banned, Mullaney said.

"We're telling people, 'Don't get ahead of the fire,' " he said. "We don't want any dead heroes."

Fires will be fought from the flanks in a pincer movement to the head, Mullaney said.

Conditions are so dangerous that any lightning strike is a potential fire, he said.

Priority now is catching fires at ignition. The strategy is to hit them hard and stop them from getting out of control, he said. It's worked about 99.37 percent of the time this year.

But conditions are ripe for disaster.

No moisture at all has been reported in Billings this July, said to Dan Borsum, fire weather forecaster for the National Weather Service. That hasn't happened since 1935, when the country was in the grip of the Dust Bowl days of the Great Depression.

Only July 1988 came close. That year, .04 inches of rain fell during the month.

He said that Montana is now heading into the hottest period of the year, and the forecast holds little hope of relief. Temperatures will climb into the 90s and probably remain there. No major moisture is the forecast, although there will be chances for scattered thunderstorms.

Borsum said how the fire season plays out will depend on where the lightning strikes, whether rain will come with the storms and whether wind blows it all out of control.

Lorna Thackeray can be reached 657-1314 or at lthackeray@billingsgazette.com.

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