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Summer wildfire season forecast: normal to slightly above normal



By Emily Stifler Managing Editor

SOUTHWEST MONTANA – The memorable winter of 2010/2011 left southwest Montana with an above average snowpack. Accordingly, says Al Nash from Yellowstone National Park, last summer’s wildfire season was quieter than normal.

“We had a dramatically different winter in this part of the country than we did last year,” Nash said.

Snowfall for most of south-central and southwest Montana this past winter was below normal. Yellowstone was slightly below normal, but better than much of the region north and west of it, Nash said.

Statewide, Montana’s snowpack increased 17 percent in May and as much as a 32 percent in individual basins, according to June 1 snow survey data released by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

In May, “large temperature swings accompanied by near average moisture brought significant snowstorms, as well as rain, to the watersheds of Montana,” said Brian Domonkos, NRCS water supply specialist for Montana. Cooler temperatures through May slowed April’s accelerated melt-rates, he added.

Statewide, 30 percent of this year’s snowpack remains due to the Memorial Day snowstorm. SNOTEL data shows scattered basins still have considerable snowpacks, enough to drive streamflow peaks into June.

“Most notably snowpack totals are above average in the northern and central two thirds of the state, while the southern third, although improved, is still below average,” Domonkos said. “The only southern watershed to see snowpack gains through May was the Lower Yellowstone.”

For this summer, experts are predicting a fairly normal to just slightly above normal fire season, Nash said.

“But a lot of that depends on how much precipitation we get in the coming weeks. We could get a lot, but as soon as it stops we’re off to the races.”

Lightning causes almost all wildfires in the park, while National Forest land forest sees a slightly higher ration of human caused starts.

Fire season typically starts in July and runs through Labor Day, Nash said, although the past couple of years the Greater Yellowstone region has seen late season fires, and wildfire in June isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Following several years of heavy moisture, fine fuels like grasses and underbrush have grown thicker than usual across much of the region.

Whether that increases the region’s susceptibility to wildfires is up for debate, said Gallatin National Forest spokeswoman Marna Daley.

“They do carry fire, but these large landscape fires we’ve see in the past are really carried by heavier fuels and larger trees.”

The growing number of beetle killed trees may also impact wildfire potential across Montana and the West, Nash said, but there is limited experience nationwide with fires that have gone through beetle killed forest.

So, while the outlook isn’t so bad, Nash said he only puts “so much credence in those forecasts.”

“We like to say talk to us in October,” Daley added.

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