HELENA — Cooler temperatures and the shortening days are aiding firefighters battling blazes across Montana, but a “season-ending event” that would help extinguish the long fire year is nowhere in sight, fire officials said Wednesday.
There were 28 wildfires burning across Montana, according to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center, continuing an active fire season that has been marked by record temperatures and little rain.
Now that temperatures have returned to seasonal norms, with nighttime temperatures dipping into the 40s and 30s in Western Montana, the fires’ growth has slowed.
“When you get that cool at night, it’s hard to get hot enough during the day to get convection,” said Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation spokeswoman Paula Short.
But there is still no real end in sight. Firefighters at this time of year are typically looking to a marked change in the weather — a significant rain or snowstorm followed by a cooling-off period.
“The big thing is, looking seven to 14 days and beyond, we’re not seeing a season-ending event,” Short said.
A cold front was expected to arrive from Canada on Wednesday, bringing wind gusts that could fan existing fires. However, the front may not be packing lightning that could cause new fires — storms with lightning patterns appear to have passed for the season, she said.
Several new blazes in Western Montana since Labor Day weekend have been human-caused, and fire officials warned that dangerous fire conditions still exist with the wind and temperatures still relatively high on the eastern side of the Continental Divide.
The largest fire in the region, the 376-square-mile Mustang Complex in Idaho, has spread across the state line and was burning more than 6 square miles in Montana. Its smoke, along with a score of other fires burning in western and southwestern Montana, contributed to a degradation of air quality in much of southern part of the state.
In Hamilton, where the 400-acre Sawtooth fire was burning uncontained 10 miles to the west, state officials deemed the air quality unhealthy.
Missoula, Butte, Frenchtown and West Yellowstone all had air quality levels considered unhealthy for sensitive groups.