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Thunderstorms roar through Bitterroot Valley

A series of powerful thunderstorms that rumbled through the Bitterroot Valley over the last few days started 11 small fires. Most of the fires were contained to the tree that had been struck by lightning. Unlike most thunderstorms in July that pack a lot of lightning and little precipitation, many areas in the Bitterroot have recorded upwards of 2 inches of rain so far this month. 

Bitterroot National Forest firefighters have been busy chasing smoke left behind by a series of powerful thunderstorms that swept through the area the last few days.

So far, the fires they’ve discovered haven’t done much.

Firefighters responded to 11 fires on the Bitterroot National Forest over the weekend through Monday.

Most have stayed put in the tree struck by lightning, said Bitterroot Forest fire prevention specialist Anna Bateson. None of the fires was larger than a tenth of an acre. Most were out by Tuesday.

Firefighters returning their Darby base Tuesday said nearly all of the fires they’ve responded this past weekend were in old burns, where vegetation has had more opportunity to dry.

“They said they hadn’t seen anything in the green canopy,” said Matt Young, the Bitterroot and Lolo national forests’ assistant fire management officer. “It had to be out in the open in those exposed, drier and hotter sites for them to get a start.”

Considering the hundreds of lightning strikes that occurred over the weekend and Monday, there’s also a chance that some small fires could be creeping around the forest floor waiting for warmer days and some wind.

“There’s always that chance,” Young said. “If we get that perfect alignment and the fire finds some receptive fuel, we could see some more fires. I think there will be some holdovers that we’ll find later. After all, it is just the middle of July.”

Unlike its neighbor to the north, Ravalli County has been fortunate in the amount of precipitation that’s fallen in what is normally one of the driest months of the year.

Since July 1, the automated weather station at Teepee Creek in the East Fork of the Bitterroot has recorded 2.23 inches of precipitation. Stevensville received 2.12 inches and the West Fork Ranger Station recorded 1.75 inches.

“Those are pretty unusual numbers for the Bitterroot in July,” Young said. “Honestly, I’m surprised that we haven’t had other issues since some of those came in a short period of time. One site recorded nearly an inch in one storm. That much rain at one time can cause problems to the transportation infrastructure.”

The moisture has allowed the Bitterroot Forest to retain its moderate fire danger rating even while its neighbor to the north — the Lolo National Forest and Missoula County — bumped theirs up to high.

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Young said most areas on the Lolo Forest received just a few hundreds of an inch of moisture from the recent storms.

The situation in the Bitterroot could change in a hurry with a few days in the high 80s and some wind.

“You could see those lighter fuels start to dry out, especially in the areas that are in the open,” Young said. “If that happens, you could see fires jump for 50 to 100 to 200 acres. But, as of this moment, the vegetation under the closed canopy is just not ready to burn.”

With a few more well-spaced rain events, the Bitterroot Valley could squeak through this fire season without a major fire.

“If we could just maintain this for the next two or three weeks, even if it does dry out, the fire season will be mild compared to others,” Young said. “Once you get to September, the days get shorter and fires have a harder time. But, if the temperatures jump up to 95 or 100 and we get a little bit of wind, everything can change in a hurry.”

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