Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) Public Information Officer Dan Bushnell says he doesn’t have a crystal ball—though even magic powers likely couldn’t help him anticipate how this year’s dry winter will affect the 2005 fire season. “We’re in the seventh year of a drought,” Bushnell says, and when it comes to the weather, “what we assume to be status quo is no longer the case on lots of fronts.”
Case in point: Montana saw its first two wildfires of 2005 in the last week of February; they burned about 1,600 acres in Choteau and Phillips counties. One fire started from a target practice in which sparks ignited grass, and another began when sparks from an equipment malfunction caught fire, says DNRC Fire Prevention Specialist Pat Cross.
“Boy it’s awfully early [for fires],” Cross says, though he, like Bushnell, remembers being nervous about summer fires this time last year, only to have a wet spring and cool summer stave off a bad fire season.
To the weather’s unpredictable patterns, Bushnell offers these twists: In last summer’s “slow” fire season, DNRC alone still attacked 632 fires across the state. “We have direct protection over more than five million acres, so we always have a fire season,” he says. And snow, he points out, doesn’t always prevent fire: The winter of 2003 saw a 1,200-acre fire in Dillon when a campfire escaped into an air pocket beneath the snow and burned grass, he says.
So what’s the DNRC’s message to Montanans in this first week of March, which also marks the beginning of the statewide open burning season?
Bushnell urges people to take advantage of the temperate weather to do “fire-wise landscaping” around their homes. Cross suggests removing “ladder fuels” such as brush and shrubs that can act like rungs for fire to climb from the ground to a roof or tree and result in a crown fire.
Bushnell notes that Lewis and Clark County banned the burning of debris this year before the open burning season even started, and says, “I anticipate you’re going to see more counties closing debris burning. The conditions out there are capital U-G-L-Y.”
But that’s not to say this summer won’t be pretty. “Your guess is as good as mine,” Bushnell says. “We’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best.”