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NPR News

A rare winter wildfire is a sign of climate change lengthening fire season

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In December, Montana residents normally shovel snow from their driveways and watch for winter storm warnings. But after months of historic drought and unseasonably warm temperatures, they've been dealing with several grassland wildfires instead. Montana Public Radio's Shaylee Ragar reports.

JAMIE REID: I just want to show you a picture. That's our house.

SHAYLEE RAGAR, BYLINE: Standing beside her 13-year-old son Dreygon, Jamie Reid shows a photo of where her family's house stood just days ago in the small green farming town of Denton, Mont.

REID: That's our neighbor's house, barely got her house, and it just demolished ours.

DREYGON: We were the unlucky ones.

RAGAR: Reid, her husband and their two sons are among about two dozen families who lost a house to the West Wind Fire that started from an unknown cause Tuesday night. Only about 200 people live here. Others lost garages, barns and grain elevators. As of Friday, the roughly 10,000-acre fire was not yet contained. It was one of three late-season wildfires last week that forced evacuations on the high plains of central Montana. No significant injuries or deaths have been reported. Don Pyrah, a state fire management officer and the incident commander in Denton, says a wildfire this time of year is highly unusual here.

DON PYRAH: Unusual because it's December and it's been a historically dry summer. And we've been faced with extreme burning conditions through most of the summer, just really caused by the level of drought that we are in.

RAGAR: The fire started on the prairie Tuesday night, and fierce winds whipped it through town, engulfing some structures while leaving others standing right next door. Jamie Reid and her family had to flee at 1 a.m. They were allowed to return briefly and then had to evacuate again. She says they were able to grab a box of photos and some clothes, but everything else was destroyed. The family is now staying in a motel about an hour away.

REID: We had all the boys' Christmas presents in there.

RAGAR: Pat Hocevar helps run the only grocery store in Denton, which was spared from the blaze. He was in the shop when he first saw the fire and said it was hard to tell which direction flames were coming from and where they were going.

PAT HOCEVAR: You couldn't see the fire 'cause all you could see was smoke - had places where you're 100 feet, the fire burns right by you, and you don't even see it 'cause there's so much smoke in the air.

RAGAR: Around 150 firefighters from several agencies descended on the town. Pyrah, the fire management officer, says 70 mile an hour winds made it impossible for crews to use normal firefighting tactics.

PYRAH: In spite of having all the stuff in the world we can get, we're still limited. Mother Nature still has the trump card.

RAGAR: An outlook published by the National Interagency Fire Center says more than 90% of the U.S. West is in drought, and a large swath of Montana faces above average fire potential for the rest of the month. Phil Higuera, a professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana, says climate change means late-season wildfires are becoming more frequent.

PHIL HIGUERA: When we zoom out and we look across the West, one of the key statistics about our increasing fire activity is just this lengthening of the fire season.

RAGAR: Research shows fire seasons are now at least two and a half months longer than they were in the 1970s.

For NPR News, I'm Shaylee Ragar in Helena, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATURAL CHILD SONG, "IT'S A SHAME MY STORE ISN'T OPEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.