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Fire season forecast: Wetter than expected

Springtime moisture has mitigated the impacts of a generally dismal winter snowpack.

Montanans can anticipate a generally normal fire season this summer, a regional fire weather forecaster reported at a briefing last week in Bozeman.

Dan Borsum, a Missoula-based forecaster with the Northern Rockies Coordinating Center, said springtime moisture has mitigated the impacts of a generally dismal winter snowpack in Montana. (Water supply forecasters noted in early January that half of their monitoring stations were reporting record-low accumulations due to an exceptionally dry stretch of weeks in November and December, but that trend later improved with the development of storms such as an early May soaker that dropped multiple inches of precipitation in some regions of the state.)

Borsum was speaking at a wildfire season outlook hosted by Gallatin County in coordination with other governmental partners, including the Custer Gallatin National Forest and Yellowstone National Park.

Borsum added that parts of the state that have undergone multiple years of precipitation deficits - northwest Montana and parts of southwest Montana in particular - are more likely to see increased potential for fire growth.

"It's really going to be a fine line [regarding] who possibly could get larger fires this summer and who may not get them," he said. "Things can really turn in a short period - like 10 days - in the Northern Rockies."

Borsum said forecasters are calling for the El Niño weather pattern to switch to a La Niña pattern toward the end of the summer, a faster-than-usual reversal of the ocean temperature trends that drive widespread changes to air temperature and precipitation. In the northern reaches of the American Rockies, La Nina typically brings cooler temperatures and above-average precipitation.

Borsum also pointed out that massive storm systems that developed this spring in California have made for wetter-than-average conditions there, which could be good news for Montana by making it easier for the state to procure access to large air tankers and other firefighting resources that can slow a fire's spread.

For the first time, Montana will also have exclusive use of a large helicopter - a Chinook - through the duration of fire season. The helicopter will be available to respond to wildfire starting July 1, according to Gallatin County Chief of Emergency Management and Fire Patrick Lonergan.

"These resources don't leave the state. They belong to the state, and they're specifically for initial attack and extended attack," he said.

Unlike other helicopters the state has contracted, the Chinook stores the up to 2,500 gallons of water it uses for aerial drops in an internal tank, rather than the bucket-and-cable setup used by some helicopters.

"The whole mission of that program is [to] get lots of water on a fire quickly to keep it from expanding and becoming a large fire," Lonergan said.

Funding to secure exclusive use of the Chinook was made available by House Bill 883, a bill state lawmakers passed in 2023 that allows unused funding from the state's fire suppression fund to be rolled forward for preparedness activities in a future year. Under that bill, preparedness expenses can include use of helicopters, expansion of hand crews and forest management initiatives.

During the briefing, Lonergan and others underscored the importance of keeping drones away from wildfire incidents. Due to safety concerns, helicopters and airplanes are unable to execute water and retardant drops or conduct recognizance missions if a drone is flying in the vicinity.

Custer Gallatin National Forest spokesperson Marna Daley noted that it's illegal to fly drones near a wildfire. All aerial resources assigned to the Shedhorn Fire south of Big Sky were grounded for a two-day period in 2021 due to drone use.

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