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Heat wave bakes Northern Rockies, could increase fire danger after soggy spring

 An aerial photo of the Moose Fire burning near the Idaho/Montana border.
U.S. Forest Service
An aerial photo of the Moose Fire burning near the Idaho/Montana border.

A heat wave scorching the Mountain West could increase wildfire danger – even in northern states that had a cooler, wetter spring.

While much of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming maintained a relatively low fire danger this spring, temps in the 90s or 100s could ramp up the risks in just a few weeks.

“One good example that we’ve seen this year is Alaska,” said Nick Nauslar, a predictive services meteorologist with the National Interagency Fire Center.

“They had a very wet and cold winter and spring, even for Alaska standards. And then they had a heat wave come through late May, early June. And they went from cold, wet spring to ‘Oh my goodness they have a lot of fires on the ground.’ ”

He said the speed of those changes was unexpected, and surprised many of the forecasters.

Trees take more time to dry out than grass or smaller brush. But Nauslar said Alaska shows even in forests, a combination of extreme heat followed by lightning and more hot, dry weather can increase fire risks rapidly.

Climate change also increases the chances of having longer, more frequent heat waves.

Northern parts of the Mountain West have seen a relatively cool, wet spring and early summer, but Nauslar says these triple-digit temperatures could be the start of higher wildfire risk -- depending on what comes next.

“Heat waves are the things that prime the pump a little bit. You know, dry out the fuels, cure the fuels, and make them available to burn. And then we start worrying about: are we going to get a critical fire weather event?” he asked.

Fire weather events like thunderstorms followed by more dry, windy conditions.

The National Interagency Fire Center will publish another forecast for wildfire risks early next month.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Madelyn Beck is Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.