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MT forecasters see "above average" fire danger into September

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Posted at 5:07 PM, Jul 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-30 19:52:38-04

MISSOULA  — Although we may see a bit of rain this coming week, the forecasters who specialize in predicting fire weather aren't seeing any real relief for the rest of the summer.

Instead, they're expecting an "above average" potential for fires through September.

Outside of a snowy February, last year's dry winter had raised concerns about only average runoff and this summer's fire threat, although it looked to be only "above normal" later in the summer. Then the heat started.

"Not so much the snowpacks. That was a part of it," explained Michael Richmond, long-time meteorologist at the Northern Rockies Coordination Center (NRCC) in Missoula.

"It's just the unprecedented heat in the latter half of June, and then continuing all the way through this month. And we really didn't get much moisture during that period anywhere in the NRGA, and some areas have had almost none."

The meteorologists in Predictive Services at the NRCC are watching the potential for some moisture, but say it's not the long-term relief we need.

"Thunderstorms, you know, they can drop maybe a quarter or half-an-inch. But they have a very small footprint and the rainfall is intense and it runs off pretty quickly, evaporates, and we're still in a warm pattern," Richmond explained.

"What we really need is a low pressure system coming in from the Pacific with much cooler air and clouds and steady light precipitation for two or three days and nothing like that is in the cards," he added.

While the Southwest has been swimming in water from monsoonal storms, the Northern Rockies has seen fairly moderate relief so far. And there's always the question of dry, versus wet thunderstorms and the risk of more fire starts.

"And some of that moisture does come up here and bring some rain, but it also brings more lightning strikes as well for fire starts. So it's a mixed blessing really," Richmond told MTN News.

He says the larger issue beyond the heat is the growing potential for strong winds that develop in August, combining with Montana's drought to cause not just forest fires, but open range fires.

"And we have a lot of fires out in central Montana as well, and some in Eastern, so those are always really vulnerable to any increase in wind. And fortunately nothing shows up on the horizon yet."

So what's still to come? Well, based on the current outlook, more of the same for the rest of the summer. But there's always that chance for a quick turnaround.

"So we don't see any change in our potential for forecasts for the month of August. We're going to keep all of our areas in the Northern Rockies above average for fire potential through August, and even in through September," Richmond says, adding the "Montana weather" wild card.

"However, sometimes in some years, that you might remember in 2017 in mid September we had two upper level low pressure systems that brought it very quick end to the fire season. And obviously it's way too soon to forecast anything like that."

"But even if that were to occur this year, the first half of September would still be very active. And that's why we're keeping that above-average potential all through September," Richmond concluded.