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Fire danger

The positive side to Montana's wet year: Fire danger is down

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Mountain greenery

From the plains of Eastern Montana to the Gallatin Mountains shown here in southwestern Montana, the landscape is green with growth from a record-setting year of moisture. All that greenery and moist soil is helping to reduce fire danger across Montana.

Here’s the positive side to the record moisture that Montana has received in the past seven months: The fire danger is average to below average.

“Everywhere I go, everyone wonders what I’m going to do with all my firefighting folks because they think there’s not going to be a fire season in the Northern Rockies,” said Bob Harrington, state forester for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the state’s wildland firefighting arm.

Harrington said high-altitude to mid-elevation fires that have burned for a long time, such as Montanans saw as recently as 2006, are unlikely.

“The likelihood is low that we’ll see fires of that magnitude,” he said.

Heavy, wet snow hung on in the high country and soaked larger downed timber. A map of Montana shows most of the state’s 1,000-hour fuels — dead timber 3 to 8 inches in diameter — at normal when compared with the past 30 years of data. The exceptions are portions of the central and northwestern areas of the state, where moisture is below normal, and parts of southeastern Montana, where moisture in 1,000-hour fuels is above normal.

“Certainly wherever we’ve had a lot of snow that’s lingered, our 1,000-hour fuels have good moisture content now,” Harrington said. “In comparison to other years, we’re in much better shape.”

But he also pointed out that about 5 million acres of forest across the state have been partly or entirely killed by mountain pine beetle. Those dead and dying fuels ignite more quickly.

“That’s one place we’re concerned about, in addition to the heavy grass load,” he said.

The chances of grass fires igniting will be high once the fine fuels that grew tall with above-average moisture cure out under the hot summer sun.

Think of it as tinder for lightning strikes. Eastern Montana, particularly the greater Ashland area, always seems ripe for summer lightning-caused wildfires.

“If we have two more weeks of hot, dry weather, we could see things get exciting,” he said.

The state is coming off two relatively quiet fire years. Last year, Harrington said, the DNRC saw almost the same number of fire starts as usual, but only about 5 percent as much acreage burned. A cool, wet summer helped keep the fires small. The year before had roughly the same number of starts, but 75 percent of the acreage burned.

According to National Interagency Fire Center data, in 2009 Montana as a whole had 1,731 wildland fires that burned almost 49,000 acres. Last year, the state saw 1,050 starts that burned 56,700 acres.

Those figures are about a third of what burned in the state in 2008, when 1,421 wildland fires burned 166,840 acres.

Wyoming has experienced three relatively quiet wildland fire years in a row. Last year the state had 533 wildland fires that burned more than 80,300 acres. In 2009, the Cowboy State had 370 wildland fires that burned more than 23,100 acres. In 2008, 296 wildland fires burned 36,940 acres.

With a quiet fire season in Montana, Harrington said, about 100 members of his state crew have been working other fires burning in the South and Southwest — everything from engine and hand crews to incident management teams. It’s part of a cooperative agreement that brings other firefighters to Montana when resources here are stretched.

“It’s a good opportunity for our firefighters to gain experience,” Harrington said. “So it’s been a pretty busy year, but we’re going to other states.”

Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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