Now comes August.
While surrounding states burned hot in July, the mountains of Montana dried up but remained almost fire-free.
It’s all but assumed that will change. July closed with barely a drop of rain all month. At .02 of an inch in Missoula on July 3 and a trace last week, it was the second-driest July on record, behind only last year.
Meanwhile, heat, dry lightning and potentially fire-whipping winds cloud the immediate weather forecast.
Then again ...
Temperatures that had been predicted to reach the mid-90s on Tuesday topped out at 85 in Missoula under an insulating blanket of clouds and smoke from fires to the west.
Winds ahead of a “cold” front Friday and Saturday are expected to hold highs in the low 80s, according to meteorologist Stefanie Henry of the National Weather Service in Missoula.
Another hot spell could succeed that coming out of the weekend, but it’s not a certainty.
“The long-range models have been jumping all around,” Henry said. “There’s a hint of a potentially cooler weather pattern, but it’s really tough to say right now.”
August is traditionally the month of smoke and fire in these parts, dating back at least to the epic fires of 1910, which blew up on Aug. 20.
“Last year we had what they’re calling a flash-drought in June, a spike in temperatures and a long, long time with no precipitation at all,” said Dave Smith, spokesman for the Northern Region of the U.S. Forest Service. “We got more precipitation this year and we didn’t have the high temperatures, but now we’re entering the period of time when traditionally that happens. We just have to see where it goes.”
The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise is due Wednesday to issue its monthly region-by-region fire potential outlook. Its July report was spot on for Montana’s slice of the Northern Rockies. It called for above normal potential of significant fire in July across the Kootenai region and the Northern Idaho Panhandle, and normal everywhere else. Central and western Montana would move to above normal potential in August and September.
That same July 1 report predicted the “ENSO neutral” conditions last summer, which kept Montana hotter and dryer than usual, could do the same this time, if a little later in the summer.
Now fire forecasters aren’t so sure.
For the first time in weeks, the Missoula County Fire Protection Association (MCFPA) didn’t bump up fire danger a notch at its Monday meeting. It’s still “Very High,” but not “Extreme.”
“I don’t want to say it’s topped off, but the increasing fire danger paused there as we had a little cooler temps and a little bit of moisture around the area,” said Matt Hall, fire management officer for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Southwestern Land Office in Missoula.
What Hall, Smith and other firewatchers are emphasizing on social media and other means is the “One Less Spark/One Less Wildfire” campaign.
Janette Turk, public affairs officer for the Flathead National Forest, said the forest will post a daily Facebook message asking for the public's assistance to have no human-caused starts.
"I know, a lofty goal," she said.
The interagency plan is to have the messages on all the collective Facebook pages and to ask others to share them to their own pages.
Hall said the MCFPA on Monday formalized a prevention team to spread the word.
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“From the Bitterroot up to Libby in the past week we’ve had 35 human-caused fires. That’s a pretty big number,” he said. “I don’t know the total lightning fires, but I would bet half the fires we’ve had are human-caused: campfires, vehicles dragging chains or trailer tire bearings starting fires on the highway, and then equipment fires.”
Camp was disbanded Tuesday on what had been western Montana’s largest incident, the Reynolds Lake fire on the far upper West Fork of the Bitterroot. It broke out on July 17 and grew quickly to 1,068 acres. By Monday it was 100 percent contained, making barely a blip on the infrared satellite maps.
The Kootenai National Forest had a number of young fires in Lincoln County, including the lightning-caused Davis and Porcupine fires that are being managed as one.
The Davis fire is tucked in the far northwest corner of the state, farther even than the Yaak Valley. It grew to an estimated 150 to 200 acres on Tuesday. A Type 2 incident management team and a heavy equipment task force (skidgen, dozer, feller buncher and skidder) were riding herd.
At 12 acres, the Porcupine fire some 30 miles to the east near Henry Mountain is smaller than the Davis.
"But if it does get away it'll be harder for us to get our arms around," said Jill Cobb, fire public information officer.
Two 20-person teams — a Type 1 and a Type 2 — are fighting it with the help of another heavy equipment task force.
The Kootenai forest issued a closure order for Yaak Highway 92 due to the Porcupine fire.
Another lightning-caused fire on a ridge east of Lake Koocanusa flared up Tuesday morning and had grown to 20 acres by late afternoon.
Many of the lightning strikes over the weekend that manifested themselves into flames were buttoned up by Tuesday. The Dry Gulch fire started Monday afternoon west of Missoula and south of the Clark Fork River but was subdued by Tuesday morning after burning about half an acre.
The Northwest Interagency Fire Zone met Tuesday morning and imposed Stage I fire restrictions in Lincoln County and on the Kootenai forest.
The rest of the zone won't be placed under fire restrictions for now.
"This may change quickly, should human-caused fires increase, and weather and fuel conditions become hotter and dryer," Turk said.
Smoke in the western valleys of Montana was at its most apparent Tuesday, but air quality throughout the region remained good in the Bitterroot Valley and Seeley Lake and nosed into the moderate range elsewhere.
“It’s been looking worse than it is,” said Sarah Coefield of the Missoula City-County Health Department.
Most of the smoke is flowing in from intense fires in California, Oregon and Idaho. People with a high sensitivity to air particulates may want to respond accordingly, but for most people the smoke at ground level is not harmful, Coefield said.
Expect it for one more day.
“We may see it more mixed toward the ground” on Wednesday, she said.