Meteorologists predict below-average fire season in southwestern Montana despite 60-day dry spell; say slower-than-average snowmelt, El Nino weather pattern in Pacific Ocean, likely to result in mild fire year

BUTTE, Montana , May 30, 2014 () – Meteorologists are calling for a below-average fire season this year in southwestern Montana, based on a slower than average snowmelt and an El Nino weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean.

Predictions of a cooler and wetter-than-average summer should also help thwart forest blazes.

"It's highly unlikely we'll have a severe fire season," Bryan Henry, a fire weather meteorologist with Northern Rockies Predictive Services in Missoula said Thursday in Butte. "Worst case scenario, it'll be a normal fire season."

While the past 60 days have been relatively dry in southwestern Montana, temperatures have been below normal as well. Cooler temperatures slow the snowmelt.

Henry said that in 2006, the area's snowpack, then normal, melted quickly and a big fire year ensued. In 2010, the snowpack levels were 50 to 60 percent of normal, but it melted slowly in a cool and wet summer and made for a mild fire year.

Henry added that fire seasons in this part of the country tend to be on a three- to four-year cycle. He said 2012 was an active fire year, and so he expects 2014 to be mild.

But with the El Nino weather pattern, southwest Montana may experience a warm fall and winter and below average snowpack in 2015.

Pre-existing drought conditions, precipitation in June and July, summer storms and the amount of fuels all affect the severity and size of wildfires in southwest Montana, Henry said.

A below average fire year, however, doesn't mean there won't be any fires. In Montana, below average means that about 100,000 acres or fewer will burn.

"We'll always have a fire season," Henry said. "It's the size of those fires we key in on."

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