Record high temperatures, a record number of days without rain, record low precipitation, record low stream flows and expanding drought conditions have a grip on western Montana, and forecasters don’t expect much to change heading into July.
In fact, a record-setting heat wave is on the way, with temperatures in Missoula expected to climb to 104 degrees by Monday. In Butte, the high is predicted at 96 degrees.
There’s no rain in sight and forests are as dry now as they typically are in mid-August, forecasters with the National Weather Service’s Missoula office warned Tuesday.
“We have several measures we track for (forest) dryness and, over the past few weeks, they’ve all been at record dryness levels for this time of year,” said Mike Richmond, a wildfire meteorologist. “The dryness levels are the same as what they would be on an average year in mid-August.”
Between April and June, Missoula typically averages 5.3 inches of precipitation. It’s generally the wettest time of the year, when the region picks up the bulk of its moisture.
But this year, according to senior meteorologist Bob Nester, Missoula has recorded less than 1.7 inches of rain, or just 32 percent of normal. That comes close to breaking a record set in 1931.
In Butte, normal year to date rainfall in 6.71 inches. But as of June 23, year to date was 4.08 inches. Normal rainfall in June is 1.80 inches; and so far this month the city has received .73 inches.
Kalispell hasn’t fared any better, breaking its record by nearly 0.50 inches. Nester said the northwest Montana city has received just 1.17 inches of precipitation over the past three months, or 20 percent of normal.
“Even if we got some moisture through convection, these numbers wouldn’t change that much,” Nester said. “Our greatest deficiency is in west-central and northwest Montana.”
While the region is facing a lack of rain, it’s also coping with record heat. Missoula is now recording its third warmest June on record, with an average temperature of 65 degrees.
And Nester said it’s only going to get hotter, hitting 99 on Saturday, 102 on Sunday and 104 on Monday. He expects this June to end as the warmest since record-keeping began.
“We have an historic heat wave expected this weekend, one that models show will last through July 6,” he said. “Given the upcoming temperatures, it could put Missoula well above our record warmest June set in 1918.”
Putting that into perspective, Nester said Missoula has only hit 100 degrees two times in June. The record high for Kalispell in June is 96, and it’s 98 in Grangeville, Idaho.
Records could also fall for the number of consecutive days without precipitation. It hasn’t rained in Missoula since June 2. The record for days without rain is 22, and that was set in 1902 and 1918.
“There’s a large area of severe drought in northwestern Oregon and the panhandle of Idaho right now,” said Ray Nickless, a hydrologist with the Weather Service in Missoula. “I wouldn’t be surprised with this hot weather and dry conditions if that doesn't expand into Montana over the next week. It’s not a very pretty situation out there.”
Stream flows across the region have fallen sharply as a result of the conditions. The Flathead, St. Regis, Bitterroot and Lochsa rivers have already dropped below record June flows. The Clark Fork is on the edge.
“With how dry we’ve been, how hot we’ve been, streams and rivers are going to continue to see record low flows,” said Nickless. “When you don’t get any rain in May and June, our wettest times of the year, you know you’re in a bad situation.”
The fire danger on the Bitterroot National Forest was moved to “high” on Tuesday. Missoula County moved its fire danger to “very high” on Monday.