After a slow start, fire season in Montana is underway, kind of. 

Compared to last summer, when extensive drought conditions fueled an early start and late end to a season in which about 940,000 acres burned, 55,616 acres have burned this season as of Aug. 9, according to Montana Disaster and Emergency Services.

The Moose Fire near Salmon, Idaho, and the Elmo Fire in the Flathead Valley have been the season’s marquee fires so far, pushing smoke across the state and charring tens of thousands of acres.

The Moose Fire has burned 72,710 acres as of Aug. 9, and containment is at 21%. Firefighters took advantage of cooler temperatures last weekend to strengthen containment lines and improve structure protection, according to the Salmon-Challis National Forest. The Moose Fire has been determined to be human caused, but is still under investigation. Stage 1 fire restrictions are in place in the Salmon-Challis National Forest, and the fire danger is “extreme.”

The Elmo Fire that started July 29 near Elmo, Montana, has burned 21,349 acres as of Aug. 9. Containment is at 61%. Air support has been a big asset fighting the Elmo Fire, with at least four scooper planes used to pull water from Flathead Lake. Firefighters have been working to keep the fire south of Lake Mary Ronan. Inciweb, the federal fire reporting website, reports an estimated containment date of Aug. 20. The cause is under investigation. Stage 1 fire restrictions are in place for Lake County and The Flathead Indian Reservation.

The Busman Road Fire in eastern Montana’s Treasure County, discovered Aug. 4, has burned 12,886 acres as of Monday evening and containment is at 90%. The Treasure County Sheriff’s Office said extra support from air support and other agencies has helped keep the fire under control. The cause is undetermined. Stage 1 fire restrictions are in place for Treasure County.

The Busman Road Fire burns in Treasure County on Aug. 4. Photo by Deputy Will Seastrom

The Weasel Fire, north of Eureka, discovered July 30, has burned 3,067 acres as of Aug. 9. Containment is at 0%. The cause has been determined as lightning. Incident management teams from Eureka and Canada are addressing the fire. Stage 1 fire restrictions are in place for the Kootenai National Forest.

The Matt Staff Road Fire, discovered Aug. 4, has burned 1,587 acres. Containment is at 100% as of Monday evening. The cause is under investigation. Fire danger in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest is “very high.”

The Clover fire, discovered July 13 in Madison County, has burned 1,099 acres. Containment is at 37%. The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest doesn’t expect much fire growth and has decreased the frequency of fire updates. Lightning was the cause. Fire danger is “high” in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

The Hog Trough Fire, found July 19, 18 miles southeast of Hamilton, has burned 824 acres. Containment is at 44%. Lightning was the cause. Outdoor burning was banned in Ravalli County on July 18 and Lolo National Forest and Bitterroot National Forest report “extreme” fire danger.

The Redhorn Fire discovered Aug. 1 in Lake County has burned 343 acres. Containment is 0%.

In a recent smoke forecast from Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality, air quality from July 1 through Aug. 3 this year was compared to the same time period in 2017 and 2021. So far, there have been a lot more “good” air quality days than in 2017 and 2021, and nothing worse than “moderate.”

Pie charts from DEQ show more “green” air quality ratings this year compared to fire seasons in 2017 and 2021. Photo courtesy Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality

The Northern Rockies Coordination Center released an outlook on the rest of fire season on Aug. 2. 

Precipitation was above average in July in north-central and northeastern Montana, and below average in northwest Montana. 

Temperatures in July were above average across the state. Above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation is expected through October in southern Montana.

Northwest Montana is currently drought-free, parts of western and central Montana are listed as abnormally dry, and moderate to extreme drought is reported in north-central and northeast Montana. Drought is expected to persist in north-central Montana through the end of October.

Wildfire potential in southwestern Montana is expected to continue through the end of September.

latest stories

Food sovereignty movement sprouts in Montana

A growing movement aimed at “food sovereignty” on Indian reservations is restoring bison to reservations, developing community food gardens with ancestral seeds, understanding and collecting wild fruits and vegetables, and learning how to cook tasty meals with traditional Indigenous ingredients.

Rosendale hints ‘heavily’ at Senate run

Montana Republican Congressman Matt Rosendale has kind of, almost-not-quite announced a long-rumored 2024 bid for U.S. Senate, stating in a video posted to social media that he’s “heavily considering running” for the seat currently held by Democrat Jon Tester.

Keely Larson is a writer based in Missoula. Originally from Helena, Keely started her journalism career at two weeklies in southwest Montana, The Madisonian and the Lone Peak Lookout. Keely was Montana Free Press’ Summer 2022 fire reporting intern and covered Montana’s 2023 Legislature for KFF Health News and the UM Legislative News Service. Keely is a graduate of the University of Montana’s Environmental and Natural Resources Graduate Program and her work has appeared in The New Republic, Ars Technica and Outside Business Journal.