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Montana fire officials warn fire danger could increase soon

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MISSOULA, Mont. - Parts of of western Montana are already starting to feel the heat of summer.

Missoula County fire officials mapped out their predictions Wednesday.

The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation says it takes just three consecutive dry days above 80 degrees to turn green, moist brush dry and brown.

DNRC spokesman Jordan Koppen says many people believe the heavy rain and snow this past winter and spring mean it could be a mild fire season, but fire officials say that could be a misconception.

Koppen switched the fire meter from "low" to "moderate" last week, but says danger is just around the corner.

"We're trying to tell people be aware of your surroundings, be aware of what you're doing with fire," he said.

Koppen says the meter may jump to "high" by the end of next week -- two levels, in just over two weeks.

"It can be a false security blanket, really, if you think about it. When you have all that moisture, things grow up and get super green during the spring, but since it's so tall things can cure out and dry out," he said.

Frenchtown Fire Department public information officer Mel Holtz added, "Those grasses are growing, they're taller, that brush when it dries out, you know everything has kind of grown a little bit because of that moisture."

Koppen's made it his mission to stop by every home in Missoula's urban interface neighborhoods like Grant Creek and the Rattlesnake to warn residents of potential fire dangers.

"If one ember landed on your roof, your whole house could go up in flames," he said.

That thought nearly hit home this past weekend when three separate spot fires broke out in Missoula's Greenough Park, just inches away from homes.

Fire crews say the damage could have been much worse had those fires happened in July or August.

"Just a few days ago we had that lightning strike storm come through and we actually had three starts out in the Frenchtown area as a result," Holtz added. He says the moisture in the brush helped crews contain the fires faster.

As for the rest of the season, Koppen says it's not easy to predict fire season because there are so many causes of fires. However, he says the east side of the state is already much drier than the west.

"I'll tell you in November, that's usually what I tell people," Koppen added. "(But) we always need to be ready for fire because it's just a matter of time before it will come. It's just a part of our ecosystem."

Koppen says most local fire departments and the DNRC offer free home inspections where they will come assess property for any potential fire danger. Koppen says common risks are wood shingled roofs, juniper trees and fuel sources too close to homes and even dry garden mulch. He says homeowners in forested areas should give homes a 5-foot gravel buffer.

You can book a home inspection by calling the DNRC's Jordan Koppen at 406-542-4321 or emailing jkoppen@mt.gov.

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