August 17, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
Fire managers and meteorologists throughout Western Montana are concerned that last Thursday night's scattered showers have lulled many people into believing fire danger has decreased.
"It's typical for a small amount of rain to make people think there will be an end to fire activity, said Bob Mutch, team leader for the Southwest Montana Fire Prevention Team. Several days of heavy rain will be needed to significantly decrease fire danger in Western Montana, he said.
Thursday night's storms spread from the Bitterroot to the Kootenai and only increased the severity of the situation because more fires will be slowly showing up," said Mutch, whose interagency team works to increase awareness of the severe fire situation.
Many people have contacted the team asking if the rain alleviated conditions enough to use gas-powered equipment such as chain saws. The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation issued a restriction on August 1 prohibiting internal combustion equipment use on federal, state and private land in Missoula, Mineral, Ravalli, Powell, Granite, Butte-Silver Bow, and Anaconda-Deer Lodge counties.
Mutch said the restrictions are still in effect and any violators will be fined.
National Weather Service officials also said recent storms may have only exacerbated the current fire situation.
"The rain we received didn't even really slow down the fire season," said Marty Whitmore, Fire Weather Program Manager with the National Weather Service in Missoula.
"It was far from widespread," he said. "We usually call wetting rain a tenth of an inch and we had isolated areas that received that amount or better, but some areas didn't get any rain."
Whitmore covers the fire weather district encompassing Western Montana and Central Idaho. He said precipitation amounts in the district on Friday morning ranged from zero at many sites to .30 in areas right under thunderclouds.
Rain from Thursday night brought Missoula's annual precipitation amount to 6.43 inches. That is 2.36 inches below the city's normal amount of 8.79 for this time of the year.
Unfortunately, many thunderclouds from the storm may have started new fires. "We're looking at 15,000 lightning strikes," Whitmore said. "It was very impressive." He said lightning maps showed the storms produced an unusually large number of strikes occurring over a vast area.
Lolo National Forest officials already reported more than 30 new fires as of noon on Friday.