Dry western Mont. Could see big fires
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A new report shows that western Montana's forests are seeing near-record dry conditions so far this year — exactly 100 years after the Great Fire of 1910. The annual drought report, delivered to the governor Friday, warned that snowpack is about half of normal in some river basins in the west. That, along with millions of acres of forest land packed with trees killed by beetles, could lead to another bad fire season. "The potential for a very active fire year is out there," said Mary Sexton, director of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. "People need to be aware of that." Sexton said we s t e r n Montana is in the midst of the fourth-driest year in 115 years. That could change, she said, but time is running out to add meaningful snowpack. The state said people need to take responsibility for fireproofing their property. Simple precautions like moving firewood away from the home and clearing trees and shrubs can help, Gov. Brian Schweitzer said. "When the fire comes, you are the one responsible for protecting your home from forest fire," Schweitzer said. "Don't assume some government agency will protect your assets." Exactly 100 years ago, one of the worst fires ever to sweep through Montana and Idaho turned summer into a ghastly scene of smoke and carnage. The Great Fire of 1910 — driven by huge winds — burned more than 3 million acres, killed 86 people and destroyed several towns. That anniversary is on the mind of land managers worried about a forest packed with beetle- killed trees. "All we need is the right environmental conditions to have a powder keg," Schweitzer said. The governor said a reserve fund set up by his administration to pay for fire costs currently has about $26 million to help fund fighting fires. But Schweitzer said the fire season usually boils down to a single month in the middle of summer. If it's cool and damp, then bad fires are usually averted despite what other conditions may exist. "The great predictor of forest fires is if it's wet and cool in July," Schweitzer said.