The Missoula DNRC office bustled Monday morning as officials from eight different agencies met with Montana Governor Steve Bullock to prepare for fire season.
All agencies promised the same support they gave in 2013, and the Montana National Guard has more support available this year after aircraft crews returned from overseas deployments. However, budget cuts for federal agencies and severe fire conditions across the western U.S. will make obtaining extra resources difficult.
A new permanent fund for wildfire suppression was passed in the last state legislative session. Bullock hailed this proactive approach to dealing with the cost of fighting wildfire.
In 2014 the fire season is expected to be mild, and could be milder than the 2013 season. Statistics from the National Rockies Coordination Group show a spike in fire activity once every fourth year. The last big spike in acreage burned and the number of fires in Montana came in 2012, followed by a mild 2013.
Many did not find it mild at all. The Lolo Creek Complex exploded almost overnight in early August, forcing evacuations along U.S. Highway 12 west of Lolo. For a time, it was the highest priority fire in the entire U.S. The fire burned over 10,000 acres.
A wet winter and cool spring are keeping the snowpack trapped in the mountains so far in 2014. In the Bitterroot River Basin, there is twice as much water in the pack than average for early May. Cool temperatures are forecast to continue this spring, so that percentage will continue to increase until a significant warm period.
While the snowpack contributes to lowering fire danger, the severity of this season will be largely determined by the prevailing weather over the next few months.
A big factor in particular for this year is El Nino. El Nino is the nickname for an ocean temperature cycle in the southern Pacific Ocean. When the normally cool waters off of the west coast of South America become unusually warm, we're said to be in an El Nino phase of this oscillation. El Nino impacts weather patterns across the globe.
In Montana, there is a greater chance of moist, westerly winds and an increase in summertime rainfall. This is critical to help minimize fire danger.
However, El Nino also means a dry winter for Montana, which has implications for the 2015 water supply and fire season. Not all El Nino events are equal, and the degree of warmth in the eastern Pacific and how long that warmth lasts will further determine how the rest of 2014 plays out in the world of weather.