Fire experts are predicting a slower-than-normal start to wildfire season in Montana this year, according to a Northern Rockies fire season outlook released Monday afternoon.
A soggy spring in the low country and lingering snowpack at higher elevations lead the National Interagency Fire Center to predict below-normal potential for wildfire at the start of the summer in Montana. But by July and August, predicted average precipitation, paired with normal to above average temperatures, bump the potential up to normal.
Montana’s outlook falls in line with broader predictions for the western United States.
"This year in the west, we've had a considerably much larger snowpack than we've had in the last three or four years," says Ed Delgado, a predictive services manager for the Fire Center.
Based in Boise, Idaho, the National Interagency Fire Center is a group of eight agencies and organizations tasked with fire management across the country. Their monthly fire potential outlooks are meant to help wildland fire managers with planning and decision-making.
Delgado says snowpack remains deep at higher elevations across the western U.S.:
"That's gonna delay the onset of the season if we continue to get a gradual snowmelt. Could keep moist conditions in the higher elevations continuing well into the summer months, which would delay that and also limit the number of fires."
Even some low-elevation areas in Montana are likely to see a late start to fire season, thanks to unusually rainy conditions. Kalispell and Billings are in their wettest year since 1948. Missoula is in its second. But, Delgado warns:
"It's a double-edged sword. We had a lot of precipitation in the lower elevations and as we head into the warmer months, we're seeing a lot of vegetation growth."
That growth could turn into fuel for wildfires later this summer if temperatures trend warmer. By July and August, the report says to expect normal to slightly above average temperatures, leading to normal fire potential, with lightning strikes becoming a cause for concern.
Yellowstone National Park is an anomaly in the state. The area in and around the park is expected to remain moist, with below-normal fire potential, into July thanks to persistent snowpack.