Montana Fire Season: In-Depth Guide

Explore details regarding the Montana fire season from the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA). Learn when is it, how long it lasts, risk factors and more.

Published:August 1, 2023
Edited:
April 24, 2024

Table of Contents

    Explore details regarding the Montana fire season from the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA). Learn when is it, how long it lasts, risk factors and more.

    Montana earns its name from the vast mountainous terrain, great plains, and valleys. Like other states in the West, climate change has led to hotter temperatures and earlier snowmelt, contributing to dry conditions that fuel wildfires in Montana.1

    When is Montana Fire Season?

    The Montana fire season begins in May and runs until October.1 Peak fire season typically occurs in mid-July and lasts for 12 weeks.5 As temperatures rise during the summer, so does the risk of wildfires due to drier fuels.

    Risk Factors for Wildfires in Montana

    Drought

    For the last three years, Montana has seen above-average temperatures and below-average precipitation. In July 2021, almost half of the state, 49%, experienced extreme drought.16 Now, in the summer of 2023, Montana finds itself facing the most severe drought the state has encountered in more than 20 years. 17

    Fuel

    Farming practices also contribute to the start of wildfires in Montana. Lawn and farm equipment-caused wildfires are more common during the hot, dry summer months. A spark from equipment hitting a rock is enough to ignite dry vegetation.2 Follow the appropriate restrictions on equipment usage during fire season. When equipment usage is allowed, check weather conditions for wind, and only operate machinery during the cooler portions of the day. Fuels are consistently drying faster and not recovering in the wet months leading to longer fire seasons.

    Weather

    The temperature in Montana is rising, with an expected increase between 2 – 5 degrees Fahrenheit in the next 20 to 30 years. While these temperatures are increasing, so are the frequency and duration of drought, especially in the Northwestern areas of Montana.9 The hottest month in the state is July, but wildfire risk increases throughout August and September as fire fuels dry out.18

    Human Activity

    Nearly 85% of wildfires in the United States are caused by human activity.2 The leading cause of wildfires in Montana is debris burning. While many use debris burning as a way to clear dead vegetation, it is important to take the necessary precautions to reduce the risk of wildfires, including obtaining a burn permit, keeping piles small, having a reliable water source nearby, and checking weather forecasts. These precautions also apply to campfire safety.

    How Wildfire Season in Montana is Changing?

    Longer fire seasons are on the horizon for Montana, much like the rest of the United States, as a result of climate change.3 The diverse landscape and weather of Montana make wildfires a natural part of the state’s ecology, but with extreme drought conditions and the current forest health crisis, the risk for wildfires is increasing.14 The increase in wildfires is greatly impacting the air quality across Montana. In May 2023, when the wildfire season had just begun, the state was already seeing air quality listed as “unhealthy” by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).15

    A majestic mountain with remnants of snow on its peaks, surrounded by rolling hills and plains adorned with bushes. The sky above is tinged with dark gray smoke

    Recent Montana Wildfires

    In the last 10 years, an average of 61,376 wildfires have occurred per year with an average of 7.2 million acres burned. The highest number of wildfires occurred in 2017 with 71,499 fires burning over 10 million acres.13

    Below is a list of recent major wildfires in Montana:

    Elmo Fire (2022)
    Start Date: July 29, 2022
    Location: Elmo, MT
    Acres Burned: 21,349
    Cause: Undetermined
    Trail Ridge Fire (2022) 7
    Start Date: Aug. 26, 2022
    Location: Wisdom, MT
    Acres Burned: 18,138
    Cause: Lightning
    MY Complex Fire (2021)
    Start Date: July 9, 2021
    Location: Hysham, MT
    Acres Burned: 89,748
    Cause: Lightning
    Harris Mountain Fire (2021)
    Start Date: July 23, 2021
    Location: Cascade
    Acres Burned: 31,460
    Cause: Lightning
    PH Fire (2021)
    Start Date: July 27, 2021
    Location: Hardin, MT
    Acres Burned: 66,134
    Cause: Coal Seams
    Richard Spring Fire (2021)8
    Start Date: Aug. 8, 2021
    Location: Rosebud County and Northern Cheyenne Reservation
    Acres Burned: 171,130
    Cause: Coal Seams
    Trail Creek Fire (2021)
    Start Date: Oct. 12, 2021
    Location: Wisdom, MT
    Acres Burned: 62,013
    Cause: Lightning
    Woods Creek Fire (2021)
    Start Date: Oct. 13, 2021
    Location: Big Belt Mountains
    Acres Burned: 55,449
    Cause: Human Caused
    Lump Gulch Fire (2020)
    Start Date: June 13, 2020
    Location: Jefferson County
    Acres Burned: 1,079
    Cause: Power line
    Howe Ridge Fire (2018)
    Start Date: August 11, 2018
    Location: Glacier National Park, Flathead County
    Acres Burned: 14,522
    Cause: Lightning

    Historical Montana Wildfire Trends

    Montana is a shared home to one the largest wildfires in U.S. history, The Great Fire of 1910, also known as the Big Blowup.  This fire began on August 21, 1910, and burned 3 million acres in Idaho, Montana, and Washington in just two days, claiming the lives of 87 people. High winds drove this fire, making the fights for crews increasingly difficult.11 There is no official cause of the Big Blowup, but records show 1910 was one of the driest years in Montana. 10

    Montana Wildfire Resources

    Utilize WFCA’s Fire Map to search for the status of an active wildfire in Montana. Users can zoom in and select each individual fire to get instant access to the latest published information.

    Sources

    1. Montana Wildfire Smoke, “The Science.“ Accessed July 19, 2023.
    2. National Park Service, “Wildfire Causes and Evaluations.“ Accessed August 1, 2023.
    3. University of Montana, “New Study Finds Humans Cause More Destructive Wildfires in the West.“ Accessed July 19, 2023.
    4. Tree Hugger, “10 of the Worst Wildfires in U.S. History.“ Accessed July 20, 2023.
    5. Global Forest Watch, “Montana.“ Accessed July 20, 2023.
    6. Inci Web, “Elmo Fire Information“ Accessed July 20, 2023.
    7.  Inci Web, “Trail Ridge Fire Information“ Accessed July 20, 2023.
    8. KULR8, “Richard Spring Fire 100% contained“ Accessed July 20, 2023.
    9. Drought, “Montana“ Accessed July 20, 2023.
    10. United States Department of Agriculture, “The Great Fire of 1910.“ Accessed July 20, 2023.
    11. Environment and Society Portal. “The Great Fire of 1910 “ Accessed July 20, 2023.
    12. Geography Realm, “Geography of Montana“ Accessed July 20, 2023.
    13. National Interagency Fire Center, “Wildfires and Acres. “ Accessed July 20, 2023.
    14. Montana Department of Commerce, “Fire Information for Travelers.“ Accessed July 25, 2023.
    15. KRTV, “Wildfire smoke continues affecting Montana air quality. “ Accessed July 25, 2023.
    16. KBZK, “Drought slowly worsening over Montana.“ Accessed July 25, 2023.
    17. Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, “Drought Conditions Improve Following Two Years of Extreme Drought; Much of Montana Still Abnormally Dry. “ Accessed July 25, 2023.
    18. Weather Spark, “Montana City Climate, Weather By Month, Average Temperature. “ Accessed July 25, 2023.

    What Does Wildfire Containment Mean & How is it Measured?

    Learn what wildfire containment is, including phases, strategies, and challenges involved in managing wildfires with guidance from the Western Fire Chiefs Association.

    Top 8 Fire-Resistant Building Materials for New Homes

    Discover the best fire-resistant building materials, their properties, applications, and benefits to ensure your construction projects are safe and secure.

    The Link Between Power Lines and Wildfires

    Explore the critical relationship between power lines and wildfires. Learn about prevention strategies, and risk mitigation with expert guidance from the WFCA.

    Scroll to Top