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Wildfire season slow this year due to weather, human caution

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FLATHEAD RESERVATION – In recent years, Mission Valley residents have come to expect a thick blanket of smoke covering the region by late August. 

This year’s blue skies are courtesy of a reduced number of human-started fires and timely precipitation, according to C.T. Camel, who is the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ fire prevention specialist.

The last sizable blaze was the Moss Ranch Fire, which burned in late July. That was one of two wildfires that required multi-day firefighting efforts to put out this season. 

According to Camel, this summer’s fire activity used to be typical for the area. The last five consecutive years have brought heightened fire activity that would have been considered unusual in the past. 

For the last few years, smoke has been in the air for much of August and September. While this year has been less smoky than the last few, it is an average season. 

“We’re just starting to get used to the last couple fire seasons,” Camel said. 

Camel said this summer’s season was “just off” compared to recent years and that temperatures were cooler. The reservation didn’t see stretches of 100-degree days like it has in the past. The weather did get dry and hot and fire danger was raised to very high in early August; however, an unusually large rainstorm dropped about three inches on western Montana and quickly alleviated those conditions. The fire danger was lowered to “high” on Aug. 29. 

In recent years, the fire danger has been very high by early July and extreme by mid-August. The current fire danger assessment of high is two levels lower than it was this time last year.  

Lightning storms that could have otherwise sparked fires were accompanied by significant rain events, preventing fires. In past years, dry lightning storms have sparked fires. Wet, cool conditions kept grass and trees green into July. In past years, those fuels would have been dry and susceptible to burning early in the summer. Those materials are just now drying out. 

The number of human-started fires this summer is also way below average, Camel said. Residents and visitors have been careful with campfires, trailer chains and driving in tall grass, which has led to fewer fires. While people were burning debris from their yards this spring, wet weather prevented fire starts.

Camel said the trees have effectively been thinned, which helps reduce fuels. When a fire has started, the CSKT Division of Fire has responded quickly to stay in control of the blaze.

Reduced fire activity doesn’t mean firefighters are getting a break. They’ve spent the time they would otherwise invest responding to fires on preventative measures. Crews have been hard at work thinning trees and eliminating smaller vegetation that could catch fire if ignited. They also regularly patrol the region to search for fires.

Camel urged residents to continue being careful with spark hazards. Debris burning is not allowed until Oct. 1 and campfires should be cool to the touch before they are abandoned. Trailer chains should not drag on the pavement and people shouldn't drive vehicles in tall grass. Camel thanked local residents for their caution with fire this summer.

Now that day and night temperatures are cooling off, fire risk is smaller. “If there were to be some starts, they would’ve gone a month ago,” Camel said. There’s more dew on the grass in the morning and more time for vegetation to cool off and build up protective moisture. 

There also aren’t many large fires burning in the northwest that could bring smoke to the region. Fires could still start, but conditions are less optimal for a large blaze than they were earlier in the summer.

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