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Montana's muted 2022 fire season fizzles

Early-summer moisture and unstrained resources for aggressive suppression conspired to deliver a more muted fire season than had been expected in spring. But in hindsight, meteorologists and land managers view summer 2022 as an outlier. Multiple factors led to a relatively light load for firefighters and Montanans' lungs, but hotter and drier climate trends that portend increasing wildfire intensity are still in store for the future.

Heading into the season, all the elements were in place for a fire-filled Montana summer, according to Dan Zumpfe, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula, which covers southwest and western Montana. But the weather had different plans.  

I think the thing that really blunted our fire season a bit from what it could have been is that we had a lot of rain in June and into early July," he said. 

Zumpfe said the extra precipitation and humidity kept fuels like grass, brush, debris, and trees wetter longer.

Still, judging purely by climate data, Zumpfe said, Montana seemed to be primed for a big fire season even into late summer. Much of the west was drier and hotter than normal. Missoula recorded the hottest August in its history - a month in which average rainfall in the west was just a tenth of an inch, down from a norm of a half to three-quarters of an inch. 

Zumpfe said conditions this year were similar to those in 2017, a big fire year for Montana with more than 500,000 acres burned and the Rice Ridge Fire in the Seeley Lake area drastically reducing air quality. The biggest difference is that June dried out faster in 2017 than it did this year. 

Nick Vertz with the National Weather Service in Billings, which covers the south-central and southeast parts of the state, areas that got extra late-winter and spring snows that slowed the start of fire season, said this summer was almost a polar opposite of last summer.

Last summer eastern Montana contended with the Richard Spring Fire, a conflagration of more than 170,000 acres started by an underground coal seam that state officials declared a major disaster.

This summer as well, the two largest fires in the eastern part of the state were coal seam ignitions. Both were far smaller, however, than the Richard Spring Fire.

According to the Montana Department of Natural Resources' Eastern Land Office, 14 wildland fires were started by coal seams in 2022, mainly in Rosebud and Powder River counties. The Long Butte Fire in Powder River County burned 1,572 acres. The Wall Fire in Rosebud County burned 1,998 acres, but didn't start until mid-July.

"Last year we were already in the middle of fire season early in June, and this year it was mid-July," said Chris Pileski, with DNRC's Eastern Land Office.

Cory Cheguis with Custer County Disaster and Emergency Services said there were only three fires of more than 100 acres in Custer County, making for a relatively relaxed season. 

In the western part of the state, the Elmo Fire near Flathead Lake generated the most attention. It burned 21,349 acres, and the cause is still under investigation. The still-burning Moose Fire in Idaho impacted air quality across Montana, but it wasn't until September that the haze really settled in.

"Moderate" and "unhealthy for sensitive groups" air quality ratings were common through much of the summer, but in September, as smoke from larger fires in Washington, California and Oregon generated a haze that was most potent in the state's western reaches, air quality indexes in Hamilton and Missoula registered a "very unhealthy" purple multiple days in a row.

According to DNRC, 1,954 fires burned 122,503 acres this season in Montana. Forty-three percent of those fires were human-caused. 

At the beginning of October, DNRC reported having spent close to $15 million on fire suppression in 2022. The agency expects to be reimbursed almost $1.5 million from state and federal sources. At the beginning of the fiscal year that began July 1, DNRC had $54 million budgeted for fire suppression. The upcoming legislative session will determine the agency's 2023 wildfire budget. 

DNRC fire prevention and community preparedness coordinator Julia Berkey said that though 2022 was a relatively muted fire year, local crews still responded to a seasonally average number of fires. She said moderate fire conditions made initial attacks more effective and firefighting resources more available.

"​​Unfortunately, such resource availability is currently only available during relatively quiet fire years," Berkey said in an email. "We do not have enough resources available, either within the state, regionally, or nationally, to have the same kind of response capacity during bigger fire seasons such as the one we had in 2021."

At the state's first wildfire briefing in May, Gov. Greg Gianforte prioritized an aggressive initial suppression strategy, emphasizing that Montana does not have a "let it burn policy," and asked land managers to affirm their commitment to the approach. Berkey said DNRC was able to maintain that strategy to limit the growth of the state's fires. 

In January, Gianforte also increased the base hourly pay rate for seasonal firefighters by $1.70, to $15.50. Berkey said the DNRC was able to staff all 110 of its seasonal firefighting positions, but still struggled to staff long-term positions that require more fire expertise, like engine bosses. The pay raise will be maintained next season, and Berkey said DNRC has no data yet on whether the increase contributed to firefighter retention.

"Looking to next year, many parts of Montana remain in severe to extreme drought. We cannot guarantee a similarly quiet year in terms of smoke and fire activity in years to come," Berkey said. "In fact, the consensus is that the core fire season will continue to get longer and drier in Montana and across the West."

Even as 2022's core season comes to a close, Yellowstone National Park increased its fire danger from moderate to high on Friday, Oct. 14. A fire remains active in the park, but no fire restrictions are currently in place.

Cheguis said Custer County is still just one windy day away from a grass fire.

Some prescribed burning has started across the state as temperature and humidity levels allow for safer burning. Zumpfe said a big National Weather Service focus this fall is informing land managers of weather factors regarding prescribed burns and identifying which days might feature more wind or rain. 

Fire restrictions have been lifted in many counties across the state. 

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