Montana, federal leaders predict active summer at annual wildfire briefing

Governor's Fire Briefing
Posted at 6:38 PM, May 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-03 13:01:09-04

HELENA — On Monday, authorities told Gov. Greg Gianforte there’s reason to expect another active wildfire year.

State, local and federal agencies participated in Montana’s annual fire briefing at the State Capitol. They held the event earlier than usual, in recognition of the fact that the state is seeing more fires outside the traditional “fire season.”

“We learned many valuable lessons from the 2021 fire season – one of them being that we can no longer think of wildfire in terms of a season,” Gianforte said. “Wildfire poses a threat to our communities year-round.”

In 2021, the state recorded one of its most severe fire years since 2017 – with devastating wildfires as late as December, when the West Wind Fire burned through the town of Denton.

The Northern Rockies Coordination Center, which helps coordinate firefighting resources in Montana and neighboring states, reports the state saw 2,570 wildfires in 2021 – burning a total 747,678 acres. The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation says those numbers don’t include all fires at the county and local levels. They estimate Montana had 3,434 fires last year, with 954,128 acres burned. The state spent around $50 million on fire suppression.

During Monday’s briefing, Steven Ippoliti, a predictive services meteorologist with NRCC, said Montana still has to “catch up” on moisture because of last year’s dry conditions. He said recent precipitation has helped somewhat, but they’re still expecting to see more fires than average this summer, especially east of the Continental Divide. Still, Ippoliti said conditions are slightly better than at this time last year.

There’s still a lot that could change, based on how much the actual weather diverges from what’s predicted now.

All the agencies taking part in the briefing stressed the importance of working together to respond to wildfires.

“Montanans can have confidence in this team’s ability to respond to whatever challenges this fire season’s going to bring us,” Gianforte said.

Montana DNRC leaders said they’re expecting to have their firefighters fully ready by the middle of June. Still, Forestry Division Administrator Sonya Germann said there’s likely to be a scarcity of resources again if the year is as active as expected. She said the Gianforte administration’s decision to raise the base pay for DNRC seasonal firefighters by $1.70 – to $15.50 an hour – has made a big difference in their recruiting efforts.

“Everyone’s struggling to fill firefighting positions, but this is hopefully going to give us the best shot at hiring some of these individuals,” said Germann.

Gianforte emphasized he wants the state and its partners to focus on “aggressive initial attack” to put fires out when they’re small. He also pointed to the state’s efforts to expand forest management and fuels reduction projects, reporting DNRC doubled the number of acres it treated in 2021.

Also on Monday, Gianforte signed a proclamation, recognizing May as Wildfire Awareness Month. He encouraged all Montana residents and visitors to be prepared for fires, and to recreate safely to reduce the risk of human-caused fires.

State leaders encourage the public to go to the Montana Fire Info website for more information on fire conditions and how to prepare for fire.