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Rain dampens wildfire forecast in many areas

HELENA, Mont. — Gov. Steve Bullock was told Monday that heavy rains east of the Continental Divide have dampened predictions for an active and early fire season — but southwestern Montana still faces potential for an active late-summer fire season.

Bullock kicked off wildfire awareness week with a briefing from more than a dozen state and federal land managers and fire experts.

The governor said that half of all wildfires are caused by people. Activities around the state over the next week will highlight better ways to prevent such fires, and the threat posed to favored recreational places by wildfire.

"That's why it is up to each and every one of us to do our part to make sure Montana is protected from wildfire," Bullock said.

Heavy rains, particularly, in the final week of May, were 600 percent of normal in parts of eastern Montana, and reduced concerns about the sort of fire season that could strike that part of the state with early summer lightning storms, said meteorologist Bryan Henry with the Northern Rockies Coordination Center.

But he said wet spring weather is only one of the factors in predicting a late summer fire season. Others are snowpack and the time it melts, July temperatures, summer lightning storm activity and the moisture content of potential fuels.

Experts are still predicting that July through September will be drier and warmer than normal, which could intensify a drought.

Henry said that the center is predicting that a portion of southwestern Montana stretching northeast to Helena faces fire dangers similar to Idaho and other parts of the West. He said experts are including the Helena area because of the large supply of trees killed by pine beetles.

"At some point in some season that beetle kill will hurt us," Henry said.

The governor was also told that federal wildfire fighting agencies will see a small drop in available resources due to the federal automatic budget cuts. The Montana National Guard said it has lost some forces to active duty deployment, which could diminish its ability to assist with firefighting efforts.

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise has predicted above-normal potential for significant fire activity in California, Oregon, southern Washington and much of central Idaho by July. The agency said that potential will include parts of Montana by August.