GREAT FALLS (AP)
This summer’s fire season, which started several weeks early, is expected to worsen in the weeks ahead, fire forecasters say. “For July, you guys are set up to burn a little more than normal,” said Tom Wordell, fire analyst for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. “But I think August will be the month of concern because the grass in eastern Montana will have dried out.” This summer is projected to be hotter and drier than normal, and the heart of the fire season could begin two to three weeks earlier than usual. “Direct measurements in thousand-hour fuels (such as trees) reveal conditions more common to late August,” according to a Northern Rockies fire-behavior advisory issued last week. Like last year, Montana got decent spring rains that led to the growth of grasses and shrubs. But then the rain stopped and the grass started drying out. “There’s been a very abundant growth, particularly in eastern Montana,” Wordell said. “It’s green now, but it could pose a real danger later in the summer.” Rob Kaczmarek, meteorologist for the Northern Rockies Fire Coordination Center in Missoula, said “record temperatures are causing things to dry out fast. Everything is really dry, much drier than we’re used to. “We’re probably two to three weeks ahead of schedule in the drying of dead fuels,” Kaczmarek said. Precipitation levels aren’t that bad in western Montana, said Robin Heffernan, meteorologist for the National Interagency Fire Center. “But this critical dryness is largely due to the warm temperatures in the spring and early summer,” she said. “And the precipitation basically shut down.” The summer is starting to look a lot like 2003, the last big fire season in Montana in which 2,126 fires burned 756,000 acres of forest. “As of right now, we’re on the same track line for ... fire intensity as we were in 2003,” Wordell said. “Last year and 2003 were fairly similar, but this year is trending more like 2003. “But it’s too early to determine how this will play out in terms of fire activity due to variables like dry lightning,” Wordell added. So far this year, the Madison Arm fire near West Yellowstone burned about 3,600 acres in late June and early July and the Fool Creek fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area has burned about 3,800 acres and is being monitored by fire crews.