Fire conditions “scary” in Beaverhead, Madison

Gina Loss of the National Weather Service met with the Beaverhead County Drought Task Force. J.P. Plutt photo


Gina Loss is the senior service hydrologist for the National Weather Service based in Great Falls.  She has been working with the Beaverhead County Commission and Beaverhead Drought Task Force since 2002.  The association with the county and the weather service began in 2000.  Last week, Loss made a personal appearance at Beaverhead Courthouse for the monthly meeting, a gathering she usually attends via teleconference.

"We do this once a month," explained Loss of her input with the Drought Task Force.  "They started having these when the drought got really bad in the early portion of the 2000s, and they have continued to have the Drought Task Force meeting as a part of the commission meeting since that time, every month from about March through October."

Loss explained that all counties are encouraged to do similar programs and some do when drought conditions become extreme.

"Beaverhead County stays right on top of it," said Loss.

Loss has now over a decade of experience targeting specifics of weather in Montana's largest county, located in the southwest corner of the state.

"It is a really dry area," said Loss of the knowledge she has gained providing the service.  "One of the biggest challenges is educating people that this is a dry area.  We do have periods of rain – May and June are big, wet months, but once we get past that things dry out significantly.

"It is not necessarily drought, it is just dry.  In the grand scheme of things it really doesn't matter, if you need water and don't have it, it is still a hardship."

Loss feels a lot of people move to the area with a misconception that water is abundant and that the mountains are filled with snowpack.  She says the truth is that the mountains of southwest Montana are very fickle.

"You can look at 2011 and 2013 as not necessarily two extremes, but they were both at opposite ends of the spectrum," explained Loss.  "2011 was well above normal and we ended up with all of that flooding and in 2013 it was below normal and it melted out early so you knew you were going to have stream flow problems."

According to Loss, the conditions in southwest Montana are particularly dangerous with the fire season heating up.

"You are at the cusp," she said.  "All it would take is a good lightening strike from a dry thunderstorm rolling through and you can have a serious situation on your hands."

During average years, the moisture retained in fuels such as grasses and downed timber would help inhibit the spread of a lightening-caused fire.

"Right now the small fuels are dry, the medium fuels are dry and the large fuels are dry – there is nothing to stand in the way," warned Loss.  "It is a dry time of the year and we are below average on top of that, so we're not getting atmospheric moisture.  Right now we are primed for what could be a big (fire) event."

Regarding the recent Bannack State Park flash flood, Loss explained that slow moving thunderstorms carrying heavy precipitation create the conditions that led to the flood.  Should the storm drop the precipitation on a rocky area or burn area that can't handle the water, the flash flood scenario becomes a reality.

"The trigger is that heavy rain event over a small area where it is just more than the soil can absorb," concluded Loss.