Rain does not extinguish a wildland fire completely, but it really minimizes any activity or spread of the blaze, according to Duane Buchi, Public Information officer with the Central Montana Type III Incident Management Team.
The Lump Gulch fire spread quickly due to high winds when it started Saturday, June 13 near Sheep Mountain in Jefferson County. Wind speed was recorded at 41 mph that day, with gusts up to 59 mph, according to the National Weather Service. That was followed by more than an inch of rain, which began the next day and continued through most of the next week.
“If you live in Montana you know how fast our weather can change,” Buchi said.
Buchi noted that although the fire has already burned through some areas, there is still fuel for it to feed on. And even with a good deal of rain, moisture does not reach all places, including the undersides of logs and beneath the branches of large trees, he said.
Doug Dodge, Jefferson County disaster and emergency services coordinator, said that a mountain pine beetle infestation, which started 8-10 years ago, is responsible for a substantial amount of fallen trees and dead timber across the Rocky Mountain west.
“It is pretty extensive throughout Jefferson County from north to south, east to west,” Dodge said.
Consequently, there is greater amounts of wildfire “fuel,” or dead timber, across Montana forests which don’t hold moisture and are therefore more susceptible to potential wildfires, he said. Also, the fallen, dead trees are a safety concern for firefighters on the ground. In the past, fallen trees have resulted in the death of firefighters in fire crews across the nation, according to Dodge.
Ultimately, there is no amount of water or moisture that can be predicted to put out any given fire. It depends on many variables including how big the “fuel” is, how widespread the fire is in terms of acreage and how much moisture the “fuel” holds prior to the fire, said Dodge.
But Dodge noted that it does take an incredible amount of moisture — he made the comparison to a swimming pool full of water — to put out a fire in a large piece of fallen timber.
For the Lump Gulch Fire, Dodge said that the fire crews were very fortunate to receive the moisture when they did, but even after days fighting the fire, as with most fires, onlookers will still be able to see smoke as timber continues to smolder.