Despite an increase in wildfire activity over the past month, the state of Montana has spent only about one-fifth of its fire fund as forecasts call for hot, dry weather to continue. will extend until October.
The state spent about $9.3 million from the state fire fund this year, leaving a balance of about $40.7 million, said Office of Fire Protection chief Matt Hall. fires at the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Hall this week presented an update on the wildfires to the Environmental Quality Council, an interim legislative committee overseeing the DNRC.
“For us here in Montana, as you know, the 2022 fire season has started with an abundant amount of humidity and cooler temperatures. However, over the past few months we have seen these dry conditions persist across the state, really exacerbating the drought conditions we have been experiencing,” he said. “As a result, much of our state experienced very high to extreme fire danger for several weeks.”
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Firefighters have responded to more than 1,700 fires this year that have burned about 94,000 acres. More than 100 fires have broken out in the past week, according to the governor’s office. These fires cross jurisdictions, which means the costs are split between federal, state and local agencies, and the numbers will continue to be adjusted as cost sharing is settled.
The costliest fire for the DNRC so far was the 1,600-acre Matt Staff Fire near Helena which started in early August. The state spent nearly $2.4 million and the total cost was over $2.5 million. This fire burned through grass and hills among homes and other structures and saw a major air and ground response.
While the state’s share of the Elmo fire near Dayton exceeded $1 million, the total cost of the 21,000-acre fire is estimated at $15.5 million. The fire broke out in mid-August and burned down several homes before confinement.
Other fires of importance to the DNRC include the 13,000 acre Busman Road fire near Hysham, the 2,300 acre Hop Creek fire near Rygate and the 500 acre Deep Draw fire near Bridger ; each costing between $450,000 and $510,000.
The current cooler weather bodes well for firefighters after an active Labor Day weekend, Hall said, but the long-term forecast calls for a return to warmer temperatures.
Arin Peters, senior duty hydrologist at the National Weather Service office in Great Falls, told the EQC that despite improved rainfall, this year’s drought has worsened with last year’s drought in some parts of Montana, contributing to dry conditions and affecting flows.
Peters described extremes in August with precipitation as low as 5% of normal in parts of the state and many areas exceeding the 90th percentile for heat. Helena recorded its hottest August for average temperature, which includes overnight lows, at 75.3 degrees against an average of 68.7 degrees.
“Of course, August is one of our driest months, but it was remarkable that it was dry, even compared to normal,” he said.
After a few days of cooler temperatures and a “pretty good push of humidity,” forecasts point to significant potential for above-normal temperatures for next month, Peters said.
Meteorologists are also studying a “very rare” factor that progresses in autumn and winter. The Pacific Ocean is expected to experience its third consecutive winter of colder surface temperatures, commonly referred to as La Nina.
La Ninas “generally improves the water supply to ponds,” Peters said, thanks to wetter than normal winters. But the past two winters have generally not gone that way. He and others don’t know what a third La Nina winter could mean.
“It’s a bit difficult to say what normally happens because there are so few cases,” he said.
Tom Kuglin is an associate editor in the state bureau of Lee Newspapers. Its coverage focuses on the outdoors, recreation and natural resources.