Drought persists, fire danger to continue

Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Dry weather is expected to persist in Beaverhead County over the next month, though there is hope on the horizon for the winter, officials say.

National Weather Service Senior Service Hydrologist Arin Peters told the Drought Task Force Monday the state may be affected by a predicted La Nina event this winter, which tend to bring wetter weather than normal.

Beaverhead County – the southern portion in particular – has been particularly lacking in water this year. The southern half of Beaverhead County is registering 45 percent to 60 percent of normal precipitation for the water year; the rest of the county is in the 75 percent to 100 percent range. Peters said that likely is only due to leftover water storage from the prior year.

Since April, the rain gauge at the University of Montana Western is showing 2.78 inches accumulated, compared to 8.23 inches for a normal year.

“We are looking at nearly a 5.5-inch deficit since April 1. For the growing season – that’s very bad,” he said. “We’re below the record low set in 1974.”

That rainfall shortage is fueling the fire season. Though it only picked up recently, continued hot and dry weather bodes ill for the rest of the month.

The national wildland fire potential outlook predicts a normal fire season for September, which Peters said he found odd.

“It seems drier than normal, so I thought that should be higher than normal,” he said.

Don Copple of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) said he figured the forecasters were considering the dropoff in thunderstorms around this time of year. Many fires are caused by lightning strikes.

Copple said the Bear Creek fire near Lemhi Pass is 85 percent contained as of Monday morning, and had burned 12,150 acres. The fire is mostly burning and smoldering in the center.

There’s a new fire in the Lobo Creek area just outside Beaverhead County in high altitude timber. Copple did not have more information on that fire.

One other fire in the area – the State Creek fire in Jefferson County – was at 3,100 acres and 41 percent contained, Copple said.

The majority of the smoke in the area can be attributed to the fires in California, Washington and Oregon, he said.

“Those fires are growing large and are putting out a lot of smoke,” Copple said.

Peters said portions of Beaverhead County are still considered in moderate drought, and that’s expected to continue through November. Abovenormal temperatures and below normal precipitation are expected to continue through at least the rest of the month.

The next Drought Task Force meeting is scheduled for Oct. 13.