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What will 2018 fire season bring?

Local activity light so far compared to last year


Into the fire season we go.

Fire season has not really gotten hot yet in western Montana, and local wildland fire officials hope to keep the 2018 campaign quiet for as long as possible.

With the Fourth of July and its associated fireworks ignition danger now in the rear view mirror, those officials turn their attention to the rising local wildfire risk as the summer takes a turn for the hotter and drier. Although California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico have already endured a long, hot fire season, the first major fire of the season has not yet erupted in the northern Rocky Mountains.

In comparison to 2017, the 2018 fire season is a few weeks behind where it was a year ago. In the Missoula area, the Lolo Peak fire and several other large blazes sparked by lightning in the Rock Creek drainage east of there were already burning at this time last year. More locally, the Montana DNRC was managing a fire which grew to well over 1,000 acres, called Lazier 3, about 40 miles up the Thompson River corridor. The Sunrise fire, another fire started by lightning southeast of Superior, had already consumed several hundred acres as well.

Just back from a dispatch assignment in Silver City, N.M., Shaira Caldwell, a dispatcher at the Plains Dispatch Center, which administers initial attack responses on fires reported on DNRC and U.S. Forest Service protected lands in eastern Sanders County and western Mineral County, says her office is ready for the fire season to commence any time now.

“Mid-July is when our season usually starts getting busy,” she said. “We have responded to several small fires these past few weeks, but nothing has gotten too big yet.”

Caldwell says the three fires Plains Dispatch responded to most recently were all human-caused – by debris burning, fireworks and an escaped campfire.

Although the Plains/Thompson Falls area, part of the Lolo National Forest, is still listed as being in “moderate” conditions for fire spread, the Cabinet Ranger District in Trout Creek and the rest of the Kootenai National Forest to the west and north has moved their fire danger rating up to “high.”

Fire managers use ERCs as they are called, measurements of energy release components based on fuel moisture levels, to determine fire danger ratings.

“The Kootenai decided to move into high danger based on our ERCs,” Cabinet RD Fire Management Officer Jeff Muenster said. “Our dead fuels are very dry but the green component is still fairly wet.

“That is changing quickly though,” he added. “I was in Eureka last week and the grasses are already curing out there. If the dry weather continues the fire situation will continue to get worse.”

Lightning storms could be the wild card as to how the fire season eventually play out. Although there was a lot of lightning storms back in May and June, the storms have not been tracking this way more recently.

In the meantime, officials hope that people will not complicate the situation by starting any more wildfires.


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