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Gianforte declares fire emergency as dry conditions persist

| July 16, 2021 7:00 AM

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Gov. Greg Gianforte declared Wednesday a statewide fire emergency in Montana as the state faces abnormally dry conditions.

As of Wednesday, nearly 1,400 wildland fires have burned over 220 square miles (570 square kilometers) in Montana. Of those around 78 percent have been human caused, according to the governor's office.

The emergency declaration allows the governor to mobilize the Montana National Guard to assist in fire suppression efforts. It also allows Gianforte to activate the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, a nationally adopted mutual aid agreement that allows states to share resources with one another during times of emergency or disaster.

"Montana faces critical fire conditions that pose significant threats to our communities, infrastructure, first responders, and way of life," Gianforte said in a statement. "As our firefighters battle active fires across the state with more to come, this executive order helps ensure they have the suppression resources, supplies, and fuel they need to safely and aggressively respond."

The governor urged Montana residents and visitors to follow local fire restrictions and recreate safely to avoid starting wildfires.

The hot and abnormally dry conditions are expected to continue through August, and new wildland fire starts are likely throughout much of the state.

Philip Higuera, professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana, told NBC Montana that conditions this year are drier than they were in 2017, when record wildfires burned more than 2,000 square miles (5,180 square kilometers) in the state by the end of the summer.

"(We're seeing) fuel moisture levels that are drier than they've been in the last decade, and are much drier than they were at this point in 2017," Higuera said.

Extreme conditions like these are often from natural weather patterns heightened by long-term, human-caused climate change. Scientists have long warned that the weather will get wilder as the world warms. Climate change has made the West much warmer and drier in the past 30 years.

Higuera says fire conditions in western Montana are directly linked to what scientists expect to experience in future decades.

"I think it's hard for us to realize that we're literally living through conditions that we haven't experienced before," he said.