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Weather Wise: Summer Fire Season

Weather Wise: Summer Fire Season
Posted at 7:06 PM, May 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-10 21:06:05-04

Summer is right around the corner, and so is fire season. There already has been above-average fire activity so far and the state is not even in the heart of fire season.

Montana had a historic fire season in the summer of 2017 when nearly 1.4 million acres burned, but since then the wildfire activity has paled in comparison. In 2018 and 2019, the combined years only had 150,000 acres burned. The summer of 2020 increased to 335,000 acres and this coming summer will likely see an increase from that number.

Currently, most of Montana is technically dry or in some level of drought. Mountain snowpack is slightly below normal and forests are still full of millions of acres of beetle-killed trees. However, what could be the dominant driving factor is the return of a stronger monsoon high over the west.

When you think of a monsoon you probably think of heavy rain and thunderstorms, but the monsoon is a seasonal wind shift that occurs in the summer months across the Western United States. This shift can bring thunderstorms and drenching rain to the desert southwest and Central Rockies.

This monsoon can deliver thunderstorms to Montana, but the moisture and rain is usually limited. These thunderstorms produce more lightning than anything else. More lightning strikes equal more potential fire starts.

In the last few years, the monsoon has been very weak leaving the southwest very dry but also not throwing significant lightning storms over Montana during summer, limiting the number of fires.

So this summer, with a return of a stronger monsoon expect an increase in lightning activity here in Big Sky Country. A dry state, ripe with fuels, and more lightning, wildfire potential will be greater than the last few summers.