By Maria Wyllie explorebigsky.com Editorial Assistant

The outlook for the 2013 fire season is severe across much of the western U.S., including almost all of Arizona, New Mexico, California, Oregon and Idaho; and portions of Montana, Colorado, Utah and Washington.

Greg Pederson, a research ecologist at the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center who analyzes current and future climate trends in western North America, says all agencies across the board are forecasting a very bad fire year due to low snowpacks and a warmer, dryer spring than normal.

During a visit to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, on May 13, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell outlined the Federal Government’s efforts to ensure collaboration in protecting communities from wildfire. Priorities include forming strong interagency partnerships, effectively using available resources and increasing public awareness.

“The US Forest Service, federal fire managers and crews will continue to work closely with states and communities to protect residents, property and our natural resources during what could be a challenging wildfire season,” Vilsack said.

Noting that most wildfires are human-caused, Jewell and Vilsack urged residents to take proactive steps and improve safety by developing community wildfire protection plans.

Near record low soil moisture values and severe drought conditions across western and southwestern Montana have raised significant concerns for the peak of fire season, which generally happens in July and August, and will be monitored closely, according to information released May 1 from the National Interagency Fire Center released an executive summary.

As of press time, May 15, the Rumsey Gulch Fire in southwestern Montana was 20 percent contained with its cause still under investigation. Located approximately three miles southeast of Philipsburg near Discovery Ski Basin, the wildfire broke out on May 13 and has burned 349 acres, five homes and three outbuildings.

Also in southwestern Montana, the Pioneer Fire started Monday, May 13, 5 miles west of Wise River. Burning 33 acres, it was 100 percent contained by May 14, and no structures were damaged.

In 2012, 9.3 million acres of private, state and federal land, and more than 4,400 structures burned in wildfires across the country. That was the third highest acreage burned since at least 1960, the earliest date with reliable records.

Pederson says the summer 2013 fire season is predicted to be comparable to last year’s, if not worse, due to widespread warm and dry conditions.