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Plans being made to apply for relief

HELENA - There was no good news in weather and fire forecasts presented Thursday at a meeting of the Montana Drought Advisory Committee.

At least 30 of Montana's 56 counties are eligible for the state's "severe drought" status, an official told the committee.

Jesse Aber, a Department of Natural Resources water planner and the committee's staff person, said that May 1 data indicate 24 counties meet the state's criteria for the status. Dry, warm weather since then will qualify at least six more counties, he said. The committee's severe drought declarations are based on water supply and projected precipitation as of May 15.

Aber said he expected the committee to make an official declaration within days.

A state-level declaration does not free up money or open special programs, but it does send a message to counties that they need to be planning for drought at the local level, Aber said. It also gives the state an edge in applying for federal drought relief, he added.

National Weather Service meteorologist Kenneth Mielke said Montana is in the middle of a fairly normal drought cycle and it's only a matter of time before the current drought ends.

"We've been here before, and we'll get out of it," he said. "But we're in it pretty good right now."

Peggy Stringer, state statistician for the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service, said the dry weather is taking its toll on crops and livestock. Crops are already showing signs of drought stress, she said. And ranchers, whose hay and pasture were ruined by last year's dry season, are having a difficult time figuring out how to feed their animals this year.

People are already talking about moving their cattle to pasture in neighboring states several hundred miles away, Agriculture Director Ralph Peck said. Peck is working with Montana's congressional delegation and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Anne Veneman to open up Conservation Reserve Program lands for grazing as early as possible. Under the CRP program, ranchers are paid to keep land out of production.

"Things just are really tough in ag right now," Peck said.

Because there is so little moisture across much of the state, this year could also wind up to be a big one for fires.

The moisture level in large-diameter dead trees - known as thousand-hour fuels because they burn for a long time - is below average across much of the state, said Ray Nelson of the Northern Rockies Fire Coordination Center. At the same time, measurements of how hot fires are likely to burn are above average.

Firefighters who have been in the field in the past two weeks have told Nelson that fires have been much more difficult to contain than normal for this time of year.

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