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Talking about the weather is usually pretty dry, but it's fitting considering the moisture — or, more appropriately, lack thereof — seen in Billings this month.

All summer, fire officials, ranchers, farmers, weather experts and even the media have been chattering about how dry it's been, and by the end of the year, it could prove to be the driest year in Billings since officials began keeping records in 1934.

"This is the driest start to the year that we've had by a considerable amount," said Dan Borsum, senior forecaster with the National Weather Service's Billings office.

As of Wednesday, Billings had received just 5.08 inches of moisture for the year. The yearly average is 10.79 inches.

Borsum said the current record for driest year was set in 1948 with 7.9 inches, meaning that, in order to avoid setting a new record, the Billings area needs 2.82 more inches by the end of the year.

Reaching that number is far from a certainty, if history is any indication.

"Roughly two-fifths of the time we do get that much moisture for the rest of the year," Borsum said. "But that's still a 60 percent chance that we'll have."

And if any month is the flag-bearer for the extreme lack of moisture seen in Billings in 2012, it's September.

Through Wednesday afternoon, no measurable moisture had fallen in the area since Aug. 15, and there's a chance this September could be the first one in recorded history that's completely dry, according to NWS records.

While trace amounts were picked up a few times, at least 0.01 inches measurable precipitation must fall to be recorded.

The current record for low precipitation in September sits at 0.06 inches, from 1964, according to the weather service.

The current stretch of dry days, through Tuesday, was 34, ranking as the seventh-longest such period in Billings' history. While that more-than-a-monthlong streak is plenty, it's still a far cry from the record, set at 62 days beginning in June 2003.

On Monday, the NWS issued a statement that said there's "virtually no chance of precipitation through at least Sunday the 23rd" and Borsum added that even then, Billings probably won't see so much as a light sprinkle.

"It's not certain that it'll end any time in September," he said.

Disaster declared

The extremely dry summer led Yellowstone County officials to declare a drought disaster in July. At the time, Steve Lackman, the county's agricultural agent, said the drought helped usher in a 50 percent loss of feed on pasture and normal grazing land along with a roughly 80 percent loss on dry land hay production.

Nearly three months later, he's singing the same tune after watching crops dry up.

"Any kind of spring crop that was planted just did terrible," he said. "It just didn't get the moisture it needed."

While irrigated crops, such as sugar beets, haven't been hit as hard, the drought has taken its toll on grain producers and the supply of food for the area's cattle ranchers.

The dramatic drop in dryland hay production has sent prices up to around $200 a ton.

In addition, ranchers likely will pull their livestock off of the land earlier than usual, even though rains in the spring brought up a little grass.

Going into the fall and winter, producers are taking a wait-and-see approach in hopes that some rain will come along, which will sprout weeds and cheatgrass, allowing farmers to kill them before planting winter wheat.

"What we're seeing now is that with the dryland crops, the guys that plant winter wheat, they're really in a pickle right now," Lackman said. "You might go from one farm to another and get a different opinion about what they're going to do, but I've talked to some who plan to hold off as long as possible and hope that it rains."

With no moisture, fire conditions have been ripe throughout the county as grasses and timber dry out, keeping crews scrambling to douse fires before they blow up.

"They got hammered once by the fires and then the fact the that it's so unbelievably dry," said Duane Winslow, the county's Disaster and Emergency Services coordinator. "They're just hurting really bad and it filters down through the county, from the fires and the drought."

Luckily, most of the county has remained unscorched, which Winslow credited to a fire management planning process that began with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation last summer and a new mutual aid agreement that allows departments from all over the county, including Billings and Laurel, to help each other out more easily on wildfires.

"This year has just been an incredible year for fire," he said. "Every fire that we've had this year, the rural fire departments have had to jump on it with mutual aid from the the other departments and the (Department of Natural Resources and Conservation). As bad as this fire year has been, if these guys weren't out there, this entire side of the state would've been on fire the whole time."

Another gauge of how dry it's been is what Borsum called the "water year," which is important because it tracks levels from October, when mountain snowpack begins to build, through September, when most of that snowpack is gone.

For the water year, the NWS has recorded 7.41 inches of moisture in Billings, well on its way to another record low. The current record stands at 8.46 inches from 1934-35, followed by 1999-2000 at 8.61 inches.

"By the end of the month, the chance of us picking up an inch of precipitation is very, very slim," Borsum said.

The drought also may affect this winter. While there's not a direct correlation, Borsum said that the other record-setting years — 1988-89 and 1948-49 — for low moisture have something else in common as winter wears on: they've gotten an awful lot colder.

In January 1989, the average daily temperature was 17 degrees cooler than usual, with highs around 21 and lows at about 5.

In February of 1949, the average was 18 degrees below normal. The average high was about 18 and the low was at 0 degrees for the month.

"It got bitterly cold," Borsum said. "There's no real strong correlation that the warm, mild weather continues into the winter but there are some indications that there's a strong variability there."

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