Fire conditions worsen says USFS
By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter
Despite getting almost twice the normal rainfall in June, fire conditions across Kootenai National Forest are dry and getting worse.
"The hot, dry days last week really pushed things up," said Charlie Webster, forest fire management officer for the Kootenai. "It caused a lot of evaporation."
The U.S. Forest Service recorded 3.37 inches of rain in Libby during June, compared with a 20-year average of 1.87 inches for the month. Troy received 3.29 inches in June, up from an average of 1.95 inches, and Eureka more than doubled its June norm with 5.08 inches, Webster said.
"July is our critical month," he said. "I'm guessing we'll go out of July drier than
He said the amount of rain isn't the only important factor. The key is how many days some precipitation falls.
For example, Webster said it's more advantageous for a quarter-inch of rain to fall over two days rather than in an hour. That's because moisture is more likely to soak in when it doesn't come down all at once.
He compared current conditions to those during the same time in 1994, when an Aug. 14 lightning strike set off a blaze that charred 55,000 acres.
"We're tracking really closely with that," he said.
Forest Service officials use a national fire danger rating system to calculate conditions. The local forest was upgraded to high fire danger over the weekend. By Friday, Webster said, the region could be put under the first step of restrictions for recreational users.
Representatives of the Kootenai and Flathead national forests, Glacier National Park, and Lincoln, Flathead and Sanders counties will hold a mid-week conference call to discuss what steps to take. The Kootenai was closed during summer 2005 due to extreme fire danger.
Webster said Forest Service officials are recording about two human-caused fires each week on the Kootenai. They believe most are what Webster called "teenager party fires." Only one lightning-caused fire has occurred, and that was in June.
"It's very rare for us to go through July without some lightning storms," Webster said.
The national fire danger rating system measures fuel moisture in live and dead twigs, stems, and underbrush. That gives land managers a good snapshot of conditions, Webster said, but the Forest Service can weigh other factors in determining the degree of risk.
"The model tells us where we should be," he said, "but if we get extreme wind we as managers can bump it up to extra high. The model gives us where it should be, but management makes the decision.
"We're getting close to very high (danger) with the recent lack of clouds."
Ed Levert of the Society of American Foresters said June's abundant rainfall can almost be considered a two-edged sword. The moisture dampened fire danger at the time, but led to increased growth of fuels.
"If we keep having timely rains we will probably make it through," he said. "But if we have a dry stretch we will have a lot of flashy fuels that burn fast and hot. It's a complex situation."
Longtime outfitter Sonya Boltz of Troy suggested that people use common sense when going into the woods during dry conditions. She and husband Jerry offered cookouts and overnight trail rides for several years through their O'Brien Creek Farm.
"In the past, I just didn't go out when it was too dry because part of our draw was campfires," she said. "You have to be a responsible patron of the forest. I discouraged smoking."
Most Lincoln County residents are aware of the potential danger during dry summers, she said. However, that isn't necessarily true for visitors from Florida or the Midwest, Boltz said.
"They look at it and it looks real green, but they don't have a clue," she said.
Forestry consultant Levert said there's always going to be a degree of uncertainty in predicting forest conditions, even though science keeps improving.
"It's a guessing game no matter what," he said. "You just play the odds."