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You never forget your first wildfire evacuation.
Mine happened in July 2018 when a fire ran up and over the ridge behind my apartment in western Colorado. I had 10 minutes to pack before law enforcement officials told me to evacuate, then drove my way through a slow-motion downpour of gray ash wondering if my home would still be standing in the morning. Thankfully, the fire spared the apartment, but the landscape is recovering to this day.
That fire was human-caused, just like 87% of Montana’s relatively few fires so far this year, according to Gov. Greg Gianforte, who received a fire season outlook briefing Tuesday from state and federal officials.
The 2023 fire season has had a slow start nationwide, but as Dan Borsum, Northern Rockies Geographic Area meteorologist with the Bureau of Land Management, told the governor, Montanans should be ready for that to change quickly as hot, dry conditions intensify over the second half of the summer and into early fall.
“We’ve been getting up to a point where we’re almost seeing a cascading increase in fire activity. We’re not there yet. And then we’ve got a heat wave coming in — it’s going to change shortly,” Borsum said. “So that’s one thing we really want to stress is the message: ‘Be prepared for big change.’”
Already this week, fire danger in both the Bitterroot and Lolo national forests has been raised to “high,” with Flathead National Forest upgraded to “high” in the last two weeks and Kootenai National Forest rated as “very high” since early July.
The global switch to an El Niño weather pattern could prolong this year’s fire season, producing higher temperatures and drier conditions later into the year than usual. Borsum said confidence levels are “off the charts” that the pattern will persist through the winter months, which could mean below-normal snowpack in 2024.
In northwestern Montana, drought conditions are creating the potential for larger fires. Low snowpack coupled with the fourth-warmest May in recorded Montana history — and the warmest May on record for many northwestern counties — caused the limited snowpack to melt early, exacerbating the dry conditions that began last June.
Of particular concern, Borsum said, are the state’s long-term moisture trends. Flathead, Glacier and Lincoln counties have amassed a deficit of more than 20 inches of average moisture over the last five years — a shortfall that requires a lot more than a few rainstorms to overcome. And across western Montana, groundwater levels are currently drier than in 97% of all other years.
As fire season gets underway in earnest, Montana Free Press’ Montana Fire Report dashboard — launching next week for its third year — can help you stay informed on air quality conditions and fires burning throughout the state.
And for the second year in a row, MTFP is employing a full-time fire season reporting intern, bringing additional resources to a critical and fast-moving beat.
I’m honored to cover fire for MTFP this season and have the chance to work with a team of journalists I truly admire. Prior to joining MTFP, I graduated from the University of Montana’s School of Journalism and interned for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Bugle magazine.
Over the next two and a half months, I will strive to bring you stories that illuminate how Montanans are preparing for, managing, and living with fire in this ever-shifting environment.
Don’t hesitate to reach out with your tips, thoughts and feedback at [email protected].
—Bowman Leigh, Fire Reporting Intern
“It is our earnest hope that the Montana State Library Commission will reconsider its decision and choose not to sever ties with the American Library Association. We urge them to look beyond short-term partisanship and view this situation through the lens of what serves the public good and long-term interests of all Montanans.”
—Excerpt from the Montana Library Association’s response to the state library’s withdrawal from American Library Association membership. The Montana State Library Commission earlier this month voted 5-1 in favor of the withdrawal, citing a 2022 tweet by current ALA President Emily Drabinski describing herself as a “Marxist lesbian” and asserting that the commission’s constitutional duties prohibited it from association with a group “led by a Marxist.” Supporters of the decision, including members of the self-styled parental rights movement, accused the ALA of promoting a Marxist agenda and alleged that libraries have made sexually explicit materials available to minors. Librarians throughout Montana countered that their mission is to support intellectual freedom and public access to information, and that withdrawal from the ALA undermines public faith in that mission. MLA also stated in its response to the vote that it will continue to promote principles of literacy and lifelong learning in Montana regardless of the commission’s decision because it believes those principles are “fundamentally American and fundamentally Montanan.”
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
Glad You Asked 🙋🏻
We’ve heard recently from several readers wondering why $1,000-plus payments from the state Department of Revenue have appeared in their bank accounts. Those deposits are in fact income tax rebates, the result of the GOP-controlled Montana Legislature’s decision this year to hand nearly $1 billion of the state’s $2.5 billion surplus back to taxpayers.
The state has set up a web-based widget where you can check the status of your rebate, which should be coming to most taxpayers who filed taxes as residents in 2020 and 2021 as a direct deposit into their bank account or a check delivered by mail. That widget is available here (look for the “Where’s my Rebate” link).
If you have other questions about those payments — or how to apply for the other half of the state’s rebate package: the property tax rebates available to resident homeowners — take a gander at this Frequently Asked Questions postwe’ve been updating periodically over the past few months. If you’re curious about anything we haven’t addressed there, please feel free to drop us a line.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
The Viz 📈
It’s the time of year when it seems like everybody and their dog is hitting the road for summer trips, so we thought we’d take a look at which stretches of Montana highway rank as the busiest.
As it turns out, according to data from the Montana Department of Transportation, the state’s highway hot spots tend to cluster around urban areas. A stretch of King Avenue West in Billings just north of Interstate 90 has the dubious distinction of being the busiest road in the state, with about 40,000 vehicle trips a day. Other busy spots include the city’s Main Street as it heads into Billings Heights from downtown, at about 39,000 trips a day, and a stretch of 10th Avenue South in Great Falls that averages nearly 37,000 trips a day. Stretches of North Reserve Street in Missoula also rank high on the list, averaging about 36,000 daily trips.
Outside city limits, heavy traffic flows clump around common commuter paths — in the Kalispell-Whitefish-Columbia Falls triangle, for example, as well as around Bozeman and down the Bitterroot Valley from Missoula. The stretch of U.S. 93 between Missoula and Lolo sees about 26,000 vehicles a day on average.
I-90, the east-west route that stretches across the nation from Seattle to Boston, sees heavy traffic as it crosses Montana, especially from Missoula through Billings. West of Bozeman, between Belgrade and Manhattan, for example, I-90 sees about 19,000 vehicle trips a day. MDT also estimates that about 11,000 vehicles a day cross the Continental Divide via Homestake Pass just east of Butte.
Interstate 15, which runs from the Canadian border through Shelby, Great Falls, Helena, Butte and Dillon en route to southern California, is, by comparison, lightly trafficked on its Montana traverse. As it passes Cascade, between Helena and Great Falls, for example, I-15 carries a relatively light load of 4,300 vehicles a day.
These figures, currently available for 2022, are what the highway department calls Annual Average Daily Traffic statistics, figures intended to represent typical traffic volume. The department uses monitoring systems to collect travel data year-round on some roadways and extrapolates from “snapshot” counts to estimate vehicle volume on others.
Because the numbers are year-round averages, they may underestimate how much traffic certain stretches see on, for example, the Friday before a summer holiday weekend. Conversely, the numbers probably overstate how much traffic roads see on winter days when poor weather encourages drivers to stay home — at least on routes that don’t lead to ski resorts.
Interested in exploring an interactive version of this data? A zoomable map that makes it easier to see the counts for specific roads in your part of the state is available on the transportation department’s website.
—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor
By the Numbers 🔢
Amount of the winning bid paid at auction by the Bair Family Trust for the painting “The Young Chief,” by Joseph Henry Sharp.
Soon, visitors to the Bair Family Museum in Martinsdale will be able to see a signature painting of an Apsáalooke family by the renowned western artist, completed in 1905 while Sharp lived on the Crow Reservation.
The painting was originally purchased by Sharp’s friend Charles M. Bair, a businessman and philanthropist who donated it more than a century ago to what would become the Billings Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber’s board of directors this year decided to sell the painting at auction, prompting concern that it would be bought by a private collector and never again seen by the public. The Bair Family Trust was adamant that not happen.
“We are happy that we were able to obtain the painting and keep it where the public can see it,” said Gerry Fagan, president of the trust’s board of advisers. “We really did like the idea of keeping this in Montana because of its Montana roots.”
Contributor Anna Paige has the full story for Montana Free Press.
—Nick Ehli, Associate Editor
Public Comment 🗣️
This won’t be news to anyone who’s attended Fish and Wildlife Commission season-setting meetings in the past two years, but elk management in Montana is a touchy issue. When the commission sets out to establish a framework for elk tag allocation, a process it undertakes every two years, hunters, outfitters and landowners turn out en masse to offer comments.
One common refrain during 2021 meetings, when the commission weighed some pretty drastic changes to its allocative framework, was that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks should rewrite its nearly two-decades-old Elk Management Plan before pursuing major changes to the limited entry (draw) system or the framework for issuing tags to large landowners. The plan is out of date, commenters argued, and not a fulsome reflection of current elk management issues. The general outline of those bigger issues? Public land hunters are having a hard time filling their tags as hunters crowd onto public land and cagey elk seek refuge on inaccessible private property. Large landowners, particularly in central Montana, report that overabundant elk are damaging their fences and gobbling up crops and livestock feed. Tension about the state’s management strategies spurred a prominent lawsuit filed by the United Property Owners of Montana last year, and a former FWP staffer recently joked that given the contentiousness involved, someone who finishes out a career as a biologist in Montana “could probably be a politician anywhere else.”
FWP took the recommendation to rewrite the management plan to heart. Last summer the agency started a scoping process to hear what Montanans like and don’t like in the current plan. Now it has a new draft plan to guide the discussion. The draft notes that the state’s elk population has expanded considerably in the nearly two decades since the old plan was adopted. The department counted fewer than 99,000 elk on the landscape in 2005 — during its most recent survey, biologists counted more than 141,000.
This week I spoke with stakeholders from the hunting, outfitting and landowner communities to get a better sense for what they make of those numbers and how they view FWP’s plan to distribute the state’s population of adaptable, predator-savvy elk. That story will be up next week. In the meanwhile, stakeholders and wildlife management wonks can take a spin through the draft plan, which includes a few dozen specific strategies and updated objectives for specific hunting districts.
“Now is the time for stakeholders to let FWP know what they think,” FWP advised in writing about the plan’s release.
Comments can be submitted here through July 31.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
Following the Law ⚖️
A legal challenge against Montana’s Republican-backed anti-drag performance law (House Bill 359, for those more attuned to legislative bill numbers) is advancing after a few weeks of mostly sitting idle in federal court.
U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris has scheduled the case’s first hearing for Wednesday, July 26, in Helena — just four days before the capital’s annual Pride celebrations are slated to commence with, yes, an assortment of public drag performances and drag story hours.
Helena’s Pride, which marks its 30th anniversary this year, is actually what nudged the case along. While supporters of the law maintain that it protects minors from inappropriate displays of sexuality and gender, the lawsuit filed by an assortment of plaintiffs in early July argues that HB 359 is unconstitutionally vague, a violation of free speech rights and impossible to accurately interpret. A case in point, the lawsuit alleges, is the recent cancellation of a historical presentation by transgender author — not drag performer — Adria Jawort at the Butte Public Library.
Despite the alleged constitutional harms, the case lacked the urgency for the plaintiffs to seek emergency relief until last week. That’s when the lead organizer of Helena’s Pride, Kevin Hamm, said he was informed by Helena city officials that the municipality would not issue permits for proposed events featuring drag performances on public streets. (The city has not directly refuted that characterization in statements to MTFP, but maintains that the requested permits are still under review and have not been officially denied.) Hamm’s organization subsequently joined the existing lawsuit, allowing the plaintiffs’ attorneys to ask the court to temporarily restrain the city of Helena and the state from enforcing HB 359.
That brings us back to next week’s hearing. Early appearances on such motions for temporary restraining orders or preliminary injunctions don’t typically feature in-depth arguments about the fundamentals of the case. Think of it like an appetizer for a more substantive meal later on. But the hearing’s outcome will likely be consequential: If the judge allows the law to remain in effect, parts of Montana’s largest Pride celebration could turn into an unpermitted public display more akin to a protest than a parade. If Morris blocks enforcement of HB 359, performers and organizers will dodge some liability, at least temporarily, even as the anti-LGBTQ culture war that spawned the bill remains in full force.
On Our Radar
Amanda — Since I picked up “The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here” on a whim, I’ve found it hard to put down. Hope Jahren has written an accessible exploration of the myriad sectors and systems contributing to what is — I would argue, anyway — the issue of our time.
Alex — What do you get when you mix a Jack Ryan political thriller with the sci-fi smash hit “The X-Files”? A congressional hearing on UFOs. And according to the Guardian, that’s precisely what’s on deck in the U.S. House next Wednesday as a group of elected believers tries to get to the bottom of what they claim is a government cover-up of the existence of extraterrestrial life.
Arren — I went to a performance by Missoula-based freak-country troubadour Izaak Opatz at the offices of Butte’s alternative radio station KBMF last night. I highly recommend checking him out.
Bowman — For all the “beaver believers” (like me) out there, researchers at Boise State and Utah State universities are using NASA satellite imagery to get a bigger, better look at how beavers restore freshwater ecosystems across large landscapes.
Mara — A commission meeting this week about the future of Montana’s behavioral health system and disabilities services has me hungry for more information about the state’s history of institutionalization. One of my primary resources has been this book about the failed effort to create a community mental health system in the 1960s and ’70s. What else should I be digging into for more Montana specifics? Email me: [email protected].
Eric — With summer in full swing it’s been a bit of a slow news week. So here’s a picture of my cat sleeping on a windowsill.
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