Montana Battles Wildfires Amid a Severe Drought

by The New York Times, Jacey Fortin

Montana has been burning for months, and there is still no end in sight.

This summer, thousands of firefighters and hundreds of Montana National Guard members have been battling the flames of dozens of large and small wildfires across the state. Thousands of people have been affected by evacuations, and two firefighters have lost their lives.

Montana is one of several states experiencing severe fires this year. Blazes flared up and down California, from Los Angeles – where a state of emergency was declared just this week – to well north of Sacramento. Wildfires in Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Washington and other Western states have smothered parts of the West in smoky, ashy air.

Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana declared the wildfires a disaster last week, calling this “one of the worst fire seasons” in the state’s history. On Thursday, the National Interagency Fire Center reported, Montana had 21 active, large fires covering about 438,000 acres.

It is not uncommon for wildfires to spring up in Montana during mid-to-late summer months, but 2017 has been different. The state is facing a severe drought, hotter and drier than any in recent memory. In a United States Senate legislative session on Wednesday, amid talk of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Senator Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, stood up to show his colleagues a national map of drought conditions.

It was a version of the U.S. Drought Monitor map, on which Montana is the site of a deep red blotch denoting “exceptional drought.”

“The fact is, there is a large portion of land along our northern tier that is experiencing incredible drought, and Montana is in the middle of it all,” Mr. Tester said, adding that Congress “continues to bury its head in the sand” in the face of climate change.

Angela Wells, a fire information officer with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said that “the period from June to August was the hottest and driest on record in Montana, and our fire season started about a month earlier than it usually does.”

She said the period of most intense blazes usually begins in August and ends with a significant rainfall in September, but no such rainfall is in the forecast so far.

Ms. Wells said she was aware of two deaths resulting from the fire, referring to the firefighters, both of whom were hit by falling trees as they battled the flames. She did not know the exact number of homes or other buildings that had been lost to flames this year so far

“Given the length and scope of the fire season, we have lost far fewer structures than one might expect,” she said. But she added that some have been destroyed by the fires, including 10 homes and dozens of other buildings that burned down recently in Lincoln County, near the Canadian border.

Fire season has been growing steadily longer and more severe in recent years, said Cathy L. Whitlock, a professor of earth sciences at Montana State University. “As Montana faces warming temperatures – and we’ve seen these temperatures warm for the last 40 to 50 years – more fires are just part of that story.”

The city of Bozeman, where Dr. Whitlock’s office is, has been relatively safe from the large blazes further west. But just this week, the United States Forest Service upgraded Bozeman’s fire danger level to “high.”

On Thursday, Dr. Whitlock described a smoky haze obscuring the mountains in the distance; she could not see the horizon. Further west, the air quality is worse.

Most of the fires are concentrated in the Rocky Mountain forests on the Western side of Montana. The biggest are in the Lolo National Forest west of the city of Missoula, one of several towns and cities in the north and west where the air quality was rated “very unhealthy” by the state on Thursday.

Montana is the country’s fourth-largest state, and it has the third-lowest population density, with just over a million residents. Ms. Wells said that with limited people and equipment to fight fires, state emergency responders are prioritizing the protection of people, property and infrastructure.

“Drought conditions are predicted to persist and expand throughout the fall, so there’s a pretty bleak picture on the horizon,” Ms. Wells said. “At this point we are recognizing that in many cases we won’t have a meaningful impact on contain-and-control strategies, and our top priority is public safety.”