Out-Of-Control Fires Usher Montana Burning Season

HELENA (AP) -- Emerging from a dry winter and facing the possibility of a dry spring, Montana fire officials are on guard as the state's open-burning season begins, ushered in by a series of runaway blazes.

Lewis and Clark County, which includes Helena, and the tribal government at the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation decided general burning permits will not be issued for now, because the risk of fires spreading out of control is too great.

The state's open-burning season began Tuesday, and fire crews were sent into action as several blazes grew out of control in the Bitterroot Valley. At the Fort Benton National Wildlife Refuge north of Great Falls, a prescribed fire moved out of bounds Wednesday and scorched a couple of hundred acres, and one set Thursday in a farmer's field near Highwood rushed out of control as well, burning about 300 acres. A blaze east of Loma in north-central Montana burned some 600 acres of private and public agricultural land Wednesday. At Rocky Boy's, a fire last weekend burned roughly 300 acres.

``That shouldn't be happening this time of year,'' said Doug Williams, Chouteau County fire warden in Fort Benton.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service reported last week that Montana's mountains should have 76 percent of the expected snowpack by this time, but they have only 44 percent, the snowpack level normally found in December.

``We do have our wetter months ahead of us,'' National Weather Service hydrologist Gina Loss said Thursday. February typically is Montana's driest month and precipitation usually picks up in the spring, peaking in June, she said. But Loss noted the forecast for the next few weeks calls for unusually warm, dry weather.

``The outlook is not very positive at this point,'' she said.

The spring burning season is a time when people burn debris and set fires to clear agricultural land, and when public lands agencies burn as part of their land-management plans. Farmers burn to reduce field stubble from previous crops or, in the case of grass producers, to cleanse fields and stimulate seed production, said Joel Clairmont, deputy state agriculture director. Thursday's fire in the Highwood area began with stubble burning in a grain field, Williams said.

One of at least four Bitterroot fires Tuesday _ all on one acre or less _ charred two junked cars and the personal vehicle of a man who set a ditch blaze spread by afternoon wind. Three days earlier, a child playing with a lighter at Rocky Boy's apparently started the fire that spread across 300 acres of grass and trees, land ordinarily snow-covered in early March, said Emery Nault, fire management officer for the Chippewa Cree Indian Tribe.

While outright suspensions of burning permits appear to be the exception, fire officials in Montana are urging extra precautions by permit holders.

``We are still allowing burning but we have tightened up (restrictions on) when they can burn,'' said Williams, Chouteau County fire warden for 33 years. ``Particularly wind _ we're watching that.''

``If the (National) Weather Service issues any kind of blip, we call (permit holders) and alert them to not burn.''

In Lewis and Clark County, where Helena is coming off its third-driest February on record, the suspension of burning permits does not apply to lands controlled by agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service. On Wednesday, the agency set a one-acre test fire north of Helena, at a site high enough to still have some snow.

``There are still places where the effects of what little winter we had are still seen,'' said Dave Larsen, fire management officer for the Helena Ranger District.