Cautious optimism from wildfire experts as summer begins

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Wildfire experts will rarely, if ever, venture a guess as to what the upcoming fire season holds until they’re in the middle of it.

But with Northwest Montana entering the first day of summer with a healthy reservoir of high-elevation snowpack and above-average spring rains, there’s cautious optimism that the fire season will at least be slow to start.

“Nothing’s super dry, and spring rains were good,” said Jim Flint, fire management officer for the Flathead National Forest’s Spotted Bear Ranger District. “But if it doesn’t rain in the rest of June, July and August, we’ll have a fire season.”

With the abundant spring precipitation and snowmelt keeping high-elevation soils saturated, Flint added, none of the vegetation is starting out the year drought-stressed, as happened two years ago when more than 200,000 acres of forestlands burned in Northwest Montana.

“Especially anything out of the valley bottoms, we’ve still got snow in the Cabinets and for our upper-elevation stuff, we’re still really wet,” Dan Rose, the Kootenai National Forest’s fire management officer, added last week. “We’re probably a good three weeks behind on the fire season at upper elevations.”

Still, resource managers throughout the region note that rainfall has slowed significantly during May and June — typically the wettest two months of the year.

“I was a little surprised, actually, that January through April, we had almost twice our normal precip, and May and June we were at about half of normal,” Rose said. “I think we got used to talking about how wet it was.”

While March and April precipitation in the Flathead Valley was more than 50 percent above average, rainfall for May and June has totaled just over half of normal, according to National Weather Service data.

Overall, the region is still well ahead of the average year-to-date precipitation. Since New Year’s Day, Kalispell’s total rain and snowfall is about 25 percent above the norm.

Snowpack also remains plentiful in the high-elevation areas surrounding the valley. As of June 20, six snow gauges in the Flathead River Basin registered an average of 143 percent of normal snowpack. Available data for the Kootenai River Basin is spotty, but a pair of sites on Stahl Peak and Bear Mountain reported more than twice the normal snowpack for this time of year.

ALI ULWELLING, fire prevention officer with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, noted that state firefighters have had a relatively quiet start to the fire season.

“Typically in March and April, we’ve had 20 fires. This year we’ve had three,” Ulwelling said Monday. While the first wildfire of the season is typically reported by March, she said this year that call didn’t go out until mid-May.

But referring to a small wildfire at Ashley Lake last Thursday, she added, “It was still dry enough that an abandoned campfire left the fire ring and went to .05 acres. ... Even the grass out there, it looks green but we’re in this transition where things are starting to dry out.”

That trend is reflected in data from the Northern Rockies Coordination Center, which provides daily updates measuring how dry forest fuels are throughout the region.

For areas around Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, each of those metrics shows the moisture content of forest fuels well above normal for this time of year. But they’ve still dropped significantly from earlier this spring, increasingly aligning with the seasonal average.

The Kootenai National Forest area in the far northwest corner of the state has seen a more pronounced drying-out during the past two months. Similarly, heavy fuels have also become more available east of the Continental Divide with the arrival of warmer weather.

In both of those areas, metrics of fuel moisture and the overall availability of fuels to burn in a wildland fire have risen above the average this month. At the beginning of June, the northern Rocky Mountain Front even set a handful of single-day records for low fuel moisture.

That subtle shift from an extended, rainy spring throughout the region is something fire managers throughout Northwest Montana are keeping an eye on. Rose echoed his colleagues by pointing out that the frequency of rainfall in July and August is typically the determining factor for the fire season.

“Regardless of the spring, kind of the rule of thumb we use here is once we get to the first part of July, if we get 10 days without wetting rain, things are generally dry enough to burn.”

Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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