HELENA – Dry conditions have turned to drought in western Montana just as the peak wildfire season begins, state drought experts said Thursday.
The Governor's Drought and Water Supply Advisory Committee said above-average temperatures and a dip in precipitation in June have contributed to drought in a year that also saw low snowpack.
The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture designated 15 western Montana counties as natural disaster areas Wednesday because of drought and named nine counties nearby as contiguous disaster areas.
The drought outlook through September shows the southwest, west and north-central areas of Montana as regions where the drought is expected to persist or intensify, according to Gina Loss, a National Weather Service hydrologist. The eastern part of the state is faring better, with one area in the southeast above normal for precipitation, she said.
Rivers are also generally running lower than they usually do at this time of year, according to Lucas Zukiewicz, a U.S. Department of Agriculture water supply specialist.
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"Rivers are now dependent on ground water and precipitation," he said. "The snowpack is gone."
Montana's wildfires have largely been kept in check so far this season. Through July 15, 154 fires have been recorded on state and private land, according to Department of Natural Resources and Conservation officials.
Montana Direct Protection Fire Coordinator Harold Gemmell said crews and equipment have been strategically positioned throughout the state. They've had success in the early part of the summer because they've been able to jump on fires quickly.
"The fire season doesn't usually get going until now," Gemmell said. "We have a long ways to go."
An above-average number of wildfires and smoke in Canada have forced about 13,000 people out of their homes in the past two weeks, and Gemmell said some U.S. resources have been sent there to help.
"I don't think we'll be getting much help from Canada this year," he said.