HELENA — As fires blew up around Montana over the weekend, leaders say it is a reminder of why it’s so important to be ready to respond.
“Across the entire Northern Rockies, we’ve seen an increase in fire activity,” said Wyatt Frampton, with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Fire Protection Bureau. “With the conditions forecast to be hot and dry for the foreseeable future, we expect to continue to need to share and coordinate amongst ourselves and partners for the duration of the summer.”
Dozens of new fires have been reported since the end of last week, including the Rock Creek Fire near Wolf Creek, the Divide Complex around Meagher County, the West Lolo and Granite Pass Complexes west of Missoula and the MY Complex in Musselshell County. While only 12 new starts were reported on Sunday, a number of existing fires grew hundreds or thousands of acres.
According to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center, which oversees fires in Montana, northern Idaho and North Dakota, more than 215,000 acres have already burned in the region this year. The region is at Preparedness Level 5 – the highest level of concern.
Frampton estimates several thousand people – from local volunteer firefighters to state and federal agencies – are currently working on suppressing fires in the state. At DNRC’s Central Land Office outside Helena, one of the key goals is to coordinate with the other agencies so they can all get firefighting resources to the places where they will do the most good.
DNRC leaders will also be closely watching the weather conditions, this week and into the rest of the summer. Frampton says they are looking for ways to be prepared on days when many new fires could start growing.
“For example, if we had a red flag warning, we’ll extend the staffing hours, and we’ll also pre-position resources in areas where there has been lightning or there might be projected to be lightning, just to reduce response times and make sure that we have resources ready to move as quickly as possible when starts are detected,” he said.
Frampton said the agency will also be expanding air detection patrols to look for fires.
Leaders are asking for additional assistance from outside the state, but how quickly those resources can arrive will depend on the fire situation in their own regions.
DNRC estimates the fuel conditions they’re seeing in the state now wouldn’t usually come until several weeks later in the summer. Leaders are asking everyone to take the conditions seriously.
“We do have a significant number of fires that have been started by lightning, but we also have an uncomfortable number of fires that have been caused by humans,” Frampton said. “So we ask that, when the public is out and about recreating, that they do their part to help prevent wildfires in Montana.”