A summer like no other looms ahead

  • Helicopter makes drop on Montana's Goat Creek Fire

    Mark Matthews photo
 

SWAN VALLEY, Mont. - The sweet aroma from a mock orange bush wafts through the air, but Steve Gauger is not here to look at wildflowers. He's monitoring a wildfire.

Like many firefighters, Gauger, incident commander on Montana's recent 220-acre Goat Creek Fire, is scratching his head over this year's early fires. On the high peaks and north-facing slopes, snowbanks still glisten. It is typically the time of year Montana firefighters begin sharpening their Pulaskis or setting controlled burns.

"If this weather keeps up, it's going to be one hot fire season," Gauger says.

Below-average snowpacks and weeks of hot weather beginning in late April have dried out the forests and grasslands of the northern tier states. On the plains east of the Rockies, drought is threatening crops and rangeland. In north-central Montana, farmers report that summer grasshoppers, insects that thrive in drought, are already jumping about their fields.

And there is a strong likelihood that little rain will fall this summer. National Weather Service records show that seven out of the last 11 El Niûo events have been followed by summers with below-normal rainfall.

In a typical spring, fires would be igniting in the Southeast and Southwest, not the Northern Rockies; in early May, the Goat Creek Fire was the only one in the country to call in a Type II interagency overhead team - an action taken when a fire grows too large for local resources.

The National Interagency Fire Center also dispatched four hotshot crews from New Mexico, Arizona and Oregon to the Goat Creek Fire. Ordinarily, local crews would have worked the blaze, but training hadn't started for Montana firefighters, many of whom were taking college final exams in early May.

Fire conditions here now stand at July levels - moderate to high. Moisture content in woody debris covering the forest floor is way down, says Bill Swope, fire management officer on the Swan Lake Ranger District. "I've never seen things burn this well, this early in the year."

Montana workers are scrambling to get ready.

"We've also stepped up prevention measures with media announcements," Gauger said. "Earlier this spring, a bunch of grass and debris fires got away from private land owners and burned some sheds, barns and a mobile home. That got people's attention. The message is - this is a different type of spring."

By contrast, the fire season has gotten off to a slow start in the Southwest and Southeast, says James Stone, public affairs specialist with the fire center in Boise, Idaho.

But things could change quickly in the Southwest, says Dan Key, the Gila National Forest's Hotshots superintendent in Silver City, N.M.

"The rain this winter made for lots of grass," he says.

The Goat Creek Fire started in a logged area heavily littered with slash on property owned by Plum Creek Timber Co. in the Swan Valley, north of Seeley Lake. Driven by wind, it spread across the steep south-facing slope, then moved higher into mixed conifer forest on national forest land, eventually consuming 220 acres. One firefighter was slightly injured.

In 1988, 72,750 fires burned 5.9 million acres across the nation, while 1996 saw 6.6 million acres scorched. Big fires can close public lands to recreation, scare off tourists and drape valleys with thick smoke.

"The stage is set to be like '88 and '96," says Ray Corral, squad boss for the Silver City Hotshots. "If this is Act I, it could be a long show this year."

Mark Matthews reports from Missoula, Mont.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • COLORADO PROGRAM MANAGER
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading non-profit conservation organization protecting Americas national parks, seeks a Program Manager for its Colorado Field Office located in...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: