Gianforte declares state of emergency for drought; local officials watching fire danger conditions
Gov. Greg Gianforte today issued an executive order declaring a statewide drought emergency in Montana.
“Every region of the state faces severe to extreme drought conditions, and the situation is getting worse. These alarming drought conditions are devastating our ag producers, challenging our tourism industry, and could bring a severe wildfire season,” Gianforte said in a July 1 release. “This emergency order makes available all necessary state government resources to mitigate the impacts of this drought and protect Montanans.”
The order directs the Departments of Agriculture, Livestock, and Natural Resources and Conservation to provide maximum assistance to the U.S. Department of Agriculture on drought-related activities to secure timely economic assistance from the federal government.
It also suspends regulations for motor carriers and persons operating commercial vehicles while they provide direct drought-related support.
According to data in the Summer 2021 Montana Drought Forecast Report released yesterday, the U.S. Drought Monitor indicates approximately 91 percent of Montana faces abnormally dry to extreme drought conditions as of June 22.
“Drought conditions at this point in 2021 are substantially worse than at the same time last year when approximately 52 percent of the state confronted similar conditions. The July forecast projects below-normal precipitation throughout the state and a 40 to 50 percent chance of above-normal temperatures across much of Montana,” according to Gianforte’s release.
In Cascade County, officials are monitoring the drought and weather conditions but have not yet implemented any fire restrictions, though multiple fire officials have raised concern going into the holiday weekend.
During July 1 fire danger briefing, Christian Cassell, lead meteorologist at the Great Falls National Weather Service station said that dry June conditions rapidly intensified the long-term drought across much of the state and that they’re “becoming very, very concerned” about the fire weather situation headed into the holiday weekend and summer.
It’s very dry and hot with increasing chances of thunderstorms in the coming days, Cassell said.
The current fire conditions are already rivaling the late June conditions of the big fire seasons of 2017, 2012 and 2006, Cassell said.
Great Falls had its third driest June on record, based on unofficial NWS numbers this week, Cassell said.
Earlier in June, Yellowstone County implemented Stage 2 fire restrictions, which includes prohibiting fireworks. The City of Billings already prohibits fireworks.
Brad Call, the county’s disaster and emergency services manager, told The Electric on June 30 that they’re aware of the fire restrictions in Yellowstone County and has been in contact with the weather service.
Call said that as of June 30, “we’re feeling pretty okay” with moisture and that he didn’t anticipate any fire restrictions or banning fireworks.
He said it’s abnormally dry in Cascade County but not a drought yet, as of June 30, but “I’m going to monitor the living tar out of it.”
In a July 1 release, Call wrote that “with our conditions currently abnormally dry, fireworks have the potential to start wildfires that can spread quickly and burn more intensely. All fireworks have the potential to cause a wildfire. While exploding and airborne fireworks are the most hazardous, even sparklers, fountains and smoke bombs can cause an ignition.”
He offered the following safety tips for Cascade County:
- Know the current/daily fire danger
- Always have an adult present
- Only use outdoors
- Light one at a time
- Have a bucket of water nearby and place used fireworks in the water
- Make sure the area you are discharging fireworks is vegetation free or mowed
- Never use near dry grass, under trees or near any other flammable material
- Stay clear after lighting fireworks
During the briefing, Great Falls Fire Rescue Chief Jeremy Jones asked Cassell of the NWS if he had any recommendations on whether local officials should implement fire restrictions and said he couldn’t answer that but that grass at his property near Ulm was dry and that he’s hearing many conversations with 1988 and 2012 being mentioned as comparable years, which is “concerning.”
“it’s very dry out there. I can’t really make a recommendation,” Cassell said.
Francis Kredensor, also of NWS Great Falls said that it’s very dry now and “very unlikely to get better in the next few weeks to a month. The next several weeks don’t look good for improving any drought or fire potential.”
Cascade County Commissioner Don Ryan, who was appointed earlier this year to fill Jane Weber’s seat, told The Electric on June 30 that rural fire districts told commissioners they are advising their volunteers to stay close and respond accordingly.
“No one is taking the fire danger for granted. We want everyone to use extreme caution and not ruin the holiday for their neighbors, and especially our volunteer firefighters,” Ryan told The Electric in an email.