Montana’s 2023 fire season had its ups and downs.
Before fire season began, conditions in northwest Montana set the stage for increased wildfire risk. Record high temperatures in May caused the region’s below-average snowpack to melt rapidly — in some areas three weeks earlier than normal — and persistent drought since last June led to low streamflows and depleted groundwater resources.
At the governor’s fire season outlook briefing on July 18, just days before the 2023 fire season kicked off in earnest, Northern Rockies Predictive Services Meteorologist Dan Borsum warned that longer-term moisture trends were “concerning” and said diminished groundwater levels could contribute to the drying of fuels.
“As soon as we go hot and dry, the plants are getting stressed [and] the reservoir for them to tap into isn’t really readily available,” Borsum said, adding that groundwater in western Montana this year was drier than in 97% of all other years.
Elsewhere in the state, above-normal rainfall in late spring and early summer helped to temporarily fend off wildfires.
“May through June were wetter than average, which set us up to have a slower start to fire season,” said Joe Messina, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula, which covers the southwest and western parts of the state.
But, Messina said, below-average precipitation in July reversed that trend, creating drier conditions that led to a “busier” late July and August with more wildfire activity. Then, two significant rainy periods in August helped to dampen fires once again.
A similar scenario played out in south-central and southeast Montana, where rainfall throughout the summer mitigated wildfire activity. In Billings, this year’s June rainfall totaled more than six inches, almost triple the average for the month, according to Shawn Palmquist, lead meteorologist for the NWS Billings office. And in August, Miles City received more than three inches of rain, compared to the monthly average of less than an inch, Palmquist said, adding that August rainfall prompted a secondary “green up” of vegetation in some areas that provided a buffer against wildfire starts.
North-central Montana was the state’s one region that consistently missed out on significant rainfall, according to a September seasonal outlook from the Northern Rockies Coordination Center. The NRCC projected that drought conditions will persist into the fall across northern Montana.
Still, despite fortuitously timed precipitation throughout much of the state, the 2023 wildfire season wasn’t exactly quiet.
From mid-July to early August, a number of lightning-caused fires ignited in western Montana and grew quickly.
The 2023 season began with the Colt Fire, which sparked 12 miles northwest of Seeley Lake on July 17 and ultimately burned more than 7,000 acres. The Bowles Creek Fire started three days later, on July 20, in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, later expanding onto the Bitterroot National Forest and burning a total of 6,988 acres. Dry lightning ignited five large fires on the Flathead Indian Reservation between July 24 and July 30, prompting stage 2 fire restrictions and “extreme” fire danger ratings across northwest Montana. Large wildfires also took hold in the Kootenai and Flathead national forests by early August, including the East Fork, Ridge, and Tin Soldier Complex fires.
Following that initial wave of new starts, activity briefly slowed due to precipitation and cooler temperatures. Severe fire weather kicked back up by mid-August, with record-high temperatures recorded in Missoula and red flag warnings issued across western Montana. On Aug. 18, the River Road East Fire blew up near Plains on the Lolo National Forest and tore through more than 17,000 acres, resulting in the loss of 64 structures, including 16 primary residences, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Moisture from Tropical Storm Hilary followed, dropping more than an inch of rain across parts of western Montana Aug. 19-21 and slowing fire spread throughout the region.
For Joe Sampson, fire management officer for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, where the Bowles Creek Fire ignited, the 2023 fire season’s constantly shifting conditions created “a bit of a yo-yo effect.”
“Our season was defined by a lot of ups and downs,” Sampson said. “We were fortunate to have those timely precipitation events that kept our fire season under control.”
Richard Fisher, operations specialist for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Division of Fire, echoed that this year’s fire season was fairly calm compared to other years, but also said that responding to wildfires is “always challenging.” When multiple large fires started on the Flathead Indian Reservation in late July, Fisher said, the CSKT Division of Fire ordered additional resources, but couldn’t always get what they needed.
Presenting to the Environmental Quality Council on Sept. 27, DNRC Forestry and Trust Lands Division Administrator Shawn Thomas characterized the 2023 fire season as less busy but more costly than average for the DNRC, in large part due to costs accrued suppressing the Colt Fire, which totaled more than $32 million.
Thomas expressed gratitude for increased funding available through Montana’s House Bill 883, which enabled the state to bolster its fire suppression response with a variety of aerial resources and two 20-person hand crews.
Thomas credited the additional resources as being part of the reason western Montana did not see more large fires this season, despite extreme fire weather during much of the summer.
According to the DNRC fire dashboard, 1,536 fires burned 116,314 acres in Montana this season, and 48% of those fires were human-caused. Thomas told the EQC that as of Sept. 15, the DNRC had spent $39.2 million on fire suppression in 2023, and the remaining fire fund balance totaled $109.3 million.
Looking ahead to 2024, Sampson said, increased fuel loads on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest could impact next year’s fire season.
While less fire can offer benefits like better air quality and reduced risk to people or property, Research Landscape Ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey Rachel Loehman said it can also “kick the can down the road” when it comes to future wildfires.
“If we have a year in which we weren’t able to reintroduce fire, or we weren’t able to tolerate fire, [or] we didn’t get fire on the landscape in a way that helped us reduce fuels, that fuel is still around for the following year,” Loehman said.
Loehman co-authored part of a 2018 U.S. Forest Service report on climate change vulnerability and adaptation in the Northern Rockies region, which examines the natural role of ecological disturbances like wildfire and how climate change is shifting the way such disturbances operate. All fires need three things to burn — ignition, fuel, and fire weather — and Loehman said each element is being affected by a warming climate, causing an increase in wildfire frequency, intensity and size.
Quieter fire seasons, as in Montana during the last two years, can feel like outliers, but Loehman said it’s important to keep broader climate trends in mind.
“What appears to us to be a moderate year now is probably an extreme year [when viewed] from the middle of the last century,” Loehman said.
Flathead National Forest Public Affairs Officer Kira Powell said in an email that while the days are now getting shorter and cooler, vegetation is also drying out again, which opens the door to the possibility of autumn fires.
“Once plants get a hard freeze, frost-killed leaves are susceptible to burn,” Powell said, cautioning Montanans to mind their campfires during hunting season and while spending time in the woods this fall.
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