Fire danger is low now, but expected to rise in August

by AMY QUINLIVAN
Mineral Independent | July 15, 2020 3:31 PM

The Superior Ranger District saw a cooler and wetter than average late spring and early summer. This has led to a current decrease in fire danger; however, Western Montana expects to see an increased fire potential for August and September.

Forecasts are showing a lower probability for precipitation and a higher probability for above normal temperatures in the three-month outlook.

“The precipitation has provided a welcome relief from an early start to the active fire season,” District Fire Management Officer Jim Ward said. “With the precipitation, we are experiencing additional growth with our grasses. When the grasses cure out, we will have increased amounts of easily ignitable, fast burning, and flashy fuels. The grass fuels are commonly associated with the valleys where many of our human fire starts occur.”

For the last week of June precipitation levels were an impressive 200-400% above normal. On June 30, the U.S. Drought Monitor Map recorded no drought conditions in the county. The Climate Prediction Center is showing below average temperatures and moisture from July 2 through July 18.

Around the district Fire Danger signs are sitting comfortably in the blue – Moderate level.

“Our current fire danger is actually below the normal for the 20-year average due to the recent wet and cool weather,” Ward said. “We complete a statistical analysis using a variety of inputs to determine our break points for fire danger. The primary index we use to evaluate fire danger levels is the Energy Release Component.” According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the component is the available energy per square foot at the head of a fire within the flaming front line.

A moderate fire danger level means that other than lightning caused fires, and accidental brush fires, in general the number of fire starts are low. In these conditions timber fires spread slow to relatively fast, and fires in open dry grasslands will burn fast and spread quickly on windy days. Open debris burning is officially closed for the season.

With a quiet fire season thus far, this has given the Superior Ranger District time to deal with new trials related to the Coronavirus epidemic.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has presented many new challenges,” Ward said. “We have reconfigured our traditional approach to how we organize our initial attack firefighting resources. We are using a rigid module concept where a specified group of firefighters will be working together as one unit for the length of the season.”

The goal is to reduce potential virus exposure across all of their fire-fighting resources.

The district has five initial attack modules.

“As an example, if one module becomes exposed and is presumptive and/or COVID-19 positive we should still have four modules available for the initial attack while the fifth module recovers from the illness.”

Overall the firefighters are not changing their standard suppression tactics for the season, which will still include rapid containment of wildfires with available resources. In the mountainous areas of Western Montana traditionally aviation assets are valuable support efforts and plans will continue to include them to the extent it is safe and effective.

On July 1, the National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook issued a report of above normal significant for large fire potential in August and September for the Northern Rockies.

The main reasons involve the probability of a weak La Nina system forming which could bring warmer and drier weather and the North American monsoon may provide increased dry thunderstorm potential.

“If these conditions occur, wildland fuels will be readily receptive to new ignition sources. Increased dry thunderstorms could provide an abundance of new fire starts that may experience rapid growth,” Ward said. “The shrubs and trees will be completing this year’s new growth soon. This means that their water intake will be reduced and they become more available to contribute to fire growth.”

As the summer weather continues to heat up and conditions get drier Ward hopes to remind the public to stay attentive.

“All of us can do our part to use safe practices to prevent creating the spark that starts a human-caused wildfire. We can take the steps to reduce the risk of wildfire having negative impacts to our homes and property by following the Firewise program’s guidance.”

To find more information on how to protect your home and property this fire season go to the following website https://www.nfpa.org/Public-Education/Fire-causes-and-risks/Wildfire/Firewise-USA