Montana Wildfire Season Off To A Slow Start

HELENA (AP) -- Montana's August sky is not shrouded in gray smoke and the air is not littered with the war-zone racket of planes and helicopters ferrying retardant to burning mountain timber. The 2004 wildfire season in Montana is barely a wisp of the 2003 calamity, so far.

By this time last year, nine major fires were burning and the state had seen 397 fires blacken 147,000 acres. As of Wednesday this year, the only significant fire was a 155-acre, fully contained blaze south of Hamilton, and Montana had reported 237 fires for the year that burned just 9,000 acres.

Halfway through the traditional fire season, those figures are far below last year's total of 775 fires over 235,000 acres.

The rest of the U.S. Forest Service's northern region is in the same situation. The Northern Rockies Coordination Center in Missoula reports 27,380 acres have burned - a fraction of the 1.2 million acres charred last season.

Not only has the region had a third fewer fires, the average size has been just 12 acres, compared with 343 acres last year.

``We're not seeing those big gobblers,'' Ray Nelson, logistics coordinator at the center, said Wednesday. ``We haven't seen the real extreme fire danger that we had in 2000, 2001 and 2003.''

``What a difference a year makes,'' said Bob Harrington, Montana state forester. ``Last year at this time we were on a steep curve. We were spending several million dollars a day. Today, there's literally nothing going on.''

Weather is the major reason.

Timely and widespread rains in late June and early July added crucial moisture to forest kindling that often fuels sparks from lightning strikes, Harrington said. Many of the lightning storms sweeping into Montana so far this summer have been accompanied by rain that douses any fires before they grow, he added.

Also, the state has not been plagued by days of 100-degree temperatures, and cooler temperatures _ particularly at night - have kept humidity unusually high and that helps prevent fledgling fires from exploding into infernos that burn thousands of acres, Harrington said.

``It's been a little bit more forgiving summer,'' said Phil Gill, fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management in Billings. ``Sometimes you catch a break and so far we've caught one.''

He said fire conditions in North Dakota and South Dakota are much the same as Montana.

But, he and Harrington warned that the peak fire season runs through mid-September and conditions could change rapidly before it's over.

``We could have significant fire activity and fire costs yet to come,'' Harrington said. ``We have had very large fires in the fall. We could have that happen yet.''

In fact, it was this time last year when wildfires in Montana began their rampage. It started with one weekend filled with lightning storms in the Missoula area.

``That was when our nightmare began,'' said Ann Bauchman, who handles the fire budget for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

Before then, the state had about $4 million in firefighting bills. Nine days later, the figure had reached $15 million. By the end of August, the state's estimated costs had soared to $48 million.

The state has spent about $1 million on fires this year, just 5 percent of the $20 million the state has available.

Chuck Swysgood, budget director for Gov. Judy Martz, said he's not counting on having any money left over when the fire season ends. But any remainder would be saved for the 2005 fires or left in the bank to maintain an adequate budget balance, he said.

``We're not out of the woods yet,'' Swysgood said of the fire danger. ``If we can get another month under our belt, that's a godsend. But this is the dog days of summer. This is the time we really hold our breath.''

For now, Harrington said, the goal is to remain ready for outbreaks and use rapid initial attacks to extinguish any fires before they can grow. Fire officials already are looking toward late September and the first big autumn storm that typically brings days of rain or some mountain snows to end the fire season, he said.

``We're still in the fire season, but every day that goes by that doesn't have any big project fires is one day less of the fire season,'' Nelson said.