Missoula's weather forecast doesn’t include what officials call a wildfire “season ending event,” but it’s certainly signaling a “summer ending event,” with Wednesday expected to be the last 90 degree day for 2019.
The National Weather Service says after highs in the 80s and 90s this week, temperatures will plummet by around 20 degrees, with highs only in the 60s early next week and rain Sunday through Tuesday. A thunderstorm also is possible Friday evening, but Saturday should be clear and warm with temperatures in the 80s for the first home Grizzly football game.
“This obviously is a season slowing event, and given the time of year it’s likely a close to the potential for big wildfires to start,” said Bob Nester with the National Weather Service in Missoula. “But we’ll still have some prescribed burning.”
The Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest started ignition efforts Wednesday on the 500-acre Wickiup prescribed fire Wednesday, which is meant to return the role of fire to the landscape and reduce the severity of naturally occurring wildfires. Smoke may be visible from the fire, which is near Grangeville, Idaho, in the greater Missoula area about 160 miles away.
Gregg Goodland, a public information officer with the forest, said they also anticipate lighting the Long Creek Project in the North Fork Ranger District on Thursday. That’s anticipated to burn about 75 acres.
“Your folks are likely to get some smoke from that one,” Goodland said.
The Bitterroot National Forest also is implementing fall prescribed burning projects this week, with plans to burn about 4,100 acres this fall. Smoke also is expected to be visible, but officials say it should only stick around for a day or two, and the fires will be managed to minimize impacts to communities.
The Lolo National Forest is looking at prescribed burns on the majority of its ranger districts, but is waiting for the fall weather pattern to arrive with milder temperatures, less wind, and higher relative humidity.
"A pulse of moisture is forecasted … for this weekend, which could signify opportunity in the coming weeks to start looking at implementing prescribed burns, but we are still a week to two weeks out due to the current conditions," Kate Jerman, the Lolo public information officer, wrote in an email to the Missoulian.
She added that firefighters on the Lolo National Forest are still responding to reports of smoke, running on new wildfire reports, and continuing suppression activities on the Beeskove fire. The lightning-caused fire, which started July 23, burned 430 acres north of Missoula in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area.
Despite the cool, wet forecast, Kristin Sleeper, a statewide fire information officer for Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, cautioned people against becoming complacent regarding wildfires. On Wednesday, critical fire weather covered much of Montana, with a red flag warning in place east of the Rocky Mountain Front stretching southwest into Gallatin and Beaverhead counties and southeast into the Billings area.
Humidity in the red flag zones is less than 20%, and temperatures in some places are expected to hit 100 degrees.
“Fire season isn’t over yet, and any spark — human or nature caused — can spark a new wildfire,” Sleeper said. “We have a cold front passage with strong winds and low relative humidity, and warm temperatures. Anything can happen.”
So far, 2019 hasn’t been a big wildfire year in Montana. Sleeper said that of the $66.8 million allocated for fire suppression this year, only an estimated $7.8 million has been spent, including on the recent Mountain View fire 16 miles east of Billings. That lightning sparked wildfire was reported Aug. 28 and is 100% contained after burning 2,800 acres.
“That $7.8 million represents a below average year,” Sleeper said. “The 10 year average cost for fire suppression is about $20.4 million annually.”
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Any unused dollars remain in the state fire suppression fund to be used next year. The amount allocated is decided by the Legislature every two years.
Ralph Rau, the Region 1 director of fire, aviation and air for the U.S. Forest Service, echoed the state’s concerns about the fire danger not being alleviated by the weather. He noted that the region, which includes portions of northern Idaho, all of Montana and North Dakota, only saw wildfires across 56,000 acres this year so far, which is lower than the average 250,000 acres annually.
“We are at Planning Level 2, with 1 being the lowest and 5 the highest. It’s very, very unusual to be at Planning Level 2 at this time of year. We’re not finding many people that remember a year like this. You have to go way back,” Rau said.
The region budgeted $71.6 million for wildfire prevention for fiscal year 2019, which ends Sept. 30. Rau said he doesn’t have an estimate yet for how much of that was used, but noted that when crews aren’t fighting wildfires, they’re doing other projects like prescribed burns, facility work and trail maintenance.
Where they may have saved money is in the wildfire suppression fund, which is tapped for overtime, hazard pay and contracted workforces during large wildfire seasons like in 2017.
“That fund pays for the actual act of wildfire suppression,” Rau said.
Even if the wildfire season isn’t finished, summer most likely is in the rearview mirror, with near normal temperatures and precipitation for July and August, Nester said.
“We’ve had so many hot summers recently, a normal summer seems kind of cold,” Nester said. “This is the kind of summer locals tell me we had back in the '70s and '80s.”
His co-worker Travis Booth added that since 1948, which is when observations began at the airport, 59% of the years didn’t hit 100 and 41% did at least once. But since 2000, the Missoula area reported 13 years with highs of 100 degrees or more.
This year, the warmest temperature was 96 degrees, on Aug. 8 and Aug. 12.
“The last year we didn’t see 100 degrees was the summer of 2016,” Booth said.
The long range forecast for September calls for slightly below average highs in the 60s and 70s.
Still, Rau noted that as archers head into the mountains for the big game bow season opener this weekend, they need to be cognizant that wet grasses can dry out in an hour, and everyone needs to be careful.
“We’ll have a lot of people in the woods, including campers, and there’s still the potential for fires to get started,” Rau said. “We’re just asking people to be careful. Remember that campfire in the morning, if it’s not put completely out, can spread and cost a lot of money to put out.”