Montana Drought Is Fueling Wildfires and Withering Crops

Aug 1, 2017

An abandoned school house near Sand Springs, Montana. Drought covers more than 80 percent of the state.
Credit Nate Hegyi / YPR

As the most severe drought in the nation continues to pummel ranchers and farmers in northeastern Montana, the National Weather Service says it isn’t ending anytime soon. 

Rancher Sarah Browning stands on her back porch near Winnett, Montana, a little dog running around her legs. The yard is still green, but the coulees and breaks around it are either brown or scorched black from fire.

“Things are extremely, extremely dry," she says. "We’ve had fires here but nothing like this.”

Most of her rangeland was destroyed by the drought-fueled Lodgepole Complex of fires last month and now she’s praying for rain to keep what little she has left... growing.

SB: “If it starts raining and we get good rain I think it’ll start greening up.”

NATE HEGYI: "Are you expecting good rain this fall?

SB: “No. We’re hoping but no.”

Eastern Montana is in the grips of an exceptional drought. It’s fueling grass fires like the Lodgepole Complex, killing crops, and making wheat prices jump across the country.

Tanja Fransen, chief meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Glasgow, says farmers and ranchers are feeling resigned.

“It’s hard on people economically," she says. "They have families to support. They have equipment to maintain. There’s a legacy with a lot of this, and when you lose that legacy, how do you rebuild it?”

And while a few isolated spots received rain over the past week, Fransen says they aren't looking at any precipitation in the near future.

"In Glasgow, July was the third warmest on record," she says. "It’s also the driest on record in 110 years.”

Nearly a quarter-million people are living under drought conditions in Montana right now, and the state has a dozen large wildfires burning in it.

And while some ranchers in eastern Montana say rains are supposed to come in mid-August, Fransen says the climate has been off over the past couple of years.

"We’ve had major flooding occurring in October. Sometimes August can be extremely dry. So, We have the science to show these things. I know there’s a lot of old wives tales about weather and such, but you can’t always count on that," she says.

Back at the ranch near Winnett, Sarah Browning says the Lodgepole Complex of fires that destroyed her rangeland came on the heels of some worst flooding she’s ever seen in 2011.

NH: “Do you feel like these things are getting worse nowadays then they were ten, twenty, thirty years ago?”

SB: “The natural disasters? Oh, you know, I don’t know. What I’ve seen yeah, but you know, I don’t know.”   

An updated report from the U.S. Drought Monitor is expected on Thursday.