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Montana Forest Fires in 2019

By this time of year, I would normally have already written several articles about the fires that were burning in Montana. The reason that I haven’t so far this year is that there isn’t much to write about.

I can’t help but compare this year to 2017. Normally, a year with an average amount of moisture or above heralds a bad fire year. The abundant moisture causes grasses to grow like crazy, and when those grasses dry out, a lightning strike usually results in a fire.

I have mentioned that fire season typically begins in mid to late June when the forests dry out enough that our fire hazard moves to “high”. 

In 2017, fire season started in the first part of June. There was an average amount of rainfall early in the year, but when the forests dried out, they did so all at once. By early July, there were about a dozen fires burning that were over 5,000 acres. 

It needs to be understood for at least a decade prior to 2017, the forests were seriously mismanaged, partly because of pressure from environmentalists groups who knew nothing about forests. The government not only capitulated to these groups, but the federal government also cut funding for firefighters.

By early July, there were neither the people nor the needed equipment in place to battle wildfires. If there had been, a huge amount of the damage could have been prevented. As an example, a local fire that started as a lightning-caused blaze (most of our forest fires are) of about 100 acres or less was left to a 23 person crew to handle. Having fought a forest fire, I can say with certainty that 23 people isn’t enough to fight a fire of even that size, with dry fire conditions.

It took about three weeks for more personnel to be assigned to that fire and by then, it was burning 1,500 acres. It took an additional month before President Trump was able to push through emergency funding to hire and train more firefighters, to get the needed equipment, and to pay for what we already had. Our local fire ended up torching about 49,000 acres of prime timber and wildlife wintering grounds before it was finally contained.

It was definitely not the largest fire in Montana, either. The same mismanagement and poor funding plagued the rest of the state as well and by the end of the fire season, over 1 million acres burned in Montana. It will take decades for those forests to fully recover.

Something happened that is quite useful, though. At the direction of the President, emergency funding was put in place to deal with such disasters. The forest service was also allotted more money for fire suppression and directives were put into place to once again start properly managing the forests.

That brings us to this year. We had an above-average snowpack and above-average spring rains. Naturally, this caused the grasses to grow abundantly. However, the forest service had the funding and authorization to begin managing the forests properly, as had been done many decades ago.

In large part because of that effort, the forests are in far better shape than they’ve been for many years. Fire season wasn’t declared until around the last week in July. We still aren’t at an extreme fire hazard.

Today, the first day of August, there are only 5 fires burning in Montana for a total of around 5,500 acres. Only one of the fires is large, at a little more than 4,500 acres and is 50% contained. Still, that 5,500 acres is a total. We’ve even had as many thunderstorms this year as we had in 2017.

Naturally, weather plays a big part, but I attribute most of the difference to proper management and enough funding so that when fires do start, almost immediately there are fire crews and equipment there to fight the fires, containing them before they can grow large. 

There are still a couple of months of fire season yet to go, but I’d be surprised if the total acreage burned in Montana at the end of the year is anywhere close to 100,000 acres; less than 10% of what burned in 2017.

That, folks, is good news.

The image is from the US Forest Service and it is of the North Hills fire, the largest fire burning in Montana right now. This fire is north of Helena, Montana and a fair distance southeast of Glacier National Park.

What do you think?

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Written by Rex Trulove

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8 Comments

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    • They are doing an admirable job. Usually, at this time of year, there is so much smoke that it is painful to the eyes and lungs. I’ve only smelled smoke once this year and it turns out that some people had built a small fire (which they still shouldn’t have done since fire season had already officially started.)

  1. I do understand that fires are bad. But they are also good. They clean out the decay and allow the forest to be reborn. They, fires, existed long before the roads of man, the trails of man and the homes of man. Fires are part of the natural order.

    We separate ourselves from the natural order at our own risk.

    • This is true and it is something that Native Americans knew very well before the settlers ever arrived. Every spring, they would purposely set fires to burn the debris off the forest floor.

      The problem is that the practice was stopped and the debris was allowed to accumulate for well over a century. The result is that the forest floor has so much accumulated fuel that forest fires, left on their own, can destroy vast tracts of healthy, living trees. The fires get so intense that almost any combustible torches.

      Quite a few years ago, a fire in Yellowstone National Park was burning hot and fast. Somebody decided that since First Nations routinely burned the forest floors and as the fire was natural, they would simply let it burn itself out. They ignored the fact that for many decades, fires had been suppressed and no effort was taken to remove the debris in any other way. The result was that about a third of the healthy forests in Yellowstone were destroyed.

      For the past year and a half or so, the forest service has been clearing out the debris off the forest floors. In areas where this has been done, major fires are no longer as much of a threat and the burning of slash, so-called prescribed burns, can be done.

      One thing they still haven’t figured out, though, is that when the First Nations purposely set fires, they did so in the spring when conditions were damp enough that fires seldom got out of hand, though the debris was still burned off.

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