Brimstone fire

The 2019 Brimstone fire is shown burning on the east shore of Yellowstone Lake in this file photo. 

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State and federal officials are taking measures to address drought conditions and limit human-caused wildfires ahead of the Fourth of July weekend.

Yellowstone National Park urged visitors on Thursday to take precautions after Stage 1 fire restrictions were enacted park-wide as fire danger shifted from high to very high.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte also on Thursday issued an executive order declaring a statewide drought emergency.

The order directed Montana’s departments of agriculture, livestock and natural resources and conservation to provide the U.S. Department of Agriculture with maximum assistance in collecting information on the impacts of drought.

“Every region of the state faces severe to extreme drought conditions, and the situation is getting worse,” Gianforte said in a news release. “These alarming drought conditions are devastating our ag producers, challenging our tourism industry, and could bring a severe wildfire season.”

The moves follow Gallatin County’s ban on fireworks and open burns in the Big Sky and West Yellowstone areas, and countywide bans on the two activities in Madison County.

In Park County, Stage 2 fire restrictions have been enacted. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks announced in a news release Thursday afternoon that the restrictions bar campfires at FWP-managed sites and restrict smoking to vehicles and in areas 3 feet in diameter that have been cleared of flammable materials. Gas or propane stoves are still allowed.

In Yellowstone, all charcoal and wood campfires at backcountry sites are prohibited effective Thursday. This includes fires in designated fire rings.

Small gas camp stoves and lanterns are still allowed in areas cleared of all overhead and flammable materials 3 feet in diameter. Fireworks are always prohibited on FWP land.

People may not smoke in the backcountry or on any trails unless they are directly adjacent to an established fire ring at a designated campsite or within a 3-foot-diameter area free of flammable material.

In the front-country and in developed areas, people can smoke only in an enclosed vehicle, a single-family dwelling, a developed campground, a day-use picnic area or a spot that’s been cleared of all flammable material 3 feet in diameter.

Campfires are permitted in designated fire rings at Madison, Mammoth, Slough Creek, Canyon, Indian Creek, Pebble Creek, Lewis Lake, Grant Village and Bridge Bay campgrounds and day-use picnic areas, according to park staff.

Fireworks are always prohibited in Yellowstone and on federal land.

Meanwhile, Gianforte sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on Thursday urging him to list all counties in Montana as primary natural disaster areas.

As of June 22, approximately 91% of Montana was facing abnormally dry to extreme drought conditions, according to the letter. At the same time last year, around 52% of the state faced similar conditions.

As record-breaking temperatures persist, “it is imperative that the U.S. Department of Agriculture aid Montana communities in accessing critical resources,” the letter says.

Some federal resources include the Livestock Forage Program, Emergency Conservation Program and Emergency Livestock Assistance Program.

Montana’s Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines issued a statement on Thursday supporting Gianforte’s request for a statewide drought disaster declaration.

“As Montana battles extreme drought conditions, we need all resources available to help Montana farmers and ranchers survive these harsh conditions,” he said. “I fully support Governor Gianforte requesting a drought disaster declaration, and I urge Secretary Vilsack to approve it immediately.”

John Cataldo, Yellowstone’s fire management officer, talked about the park’s new fire restrictions during a live broadcast on Thursday morning.

“Fires are going to start easily if we’re careless or if we get lightning,” he said. “We expect them to spread pretty readily under most conditions that we’ll have during the day here.”

Cataldo urged visitors to tend to campfires at all times and put them out completely. Shovels and water jugs should be standard car camping equipment, he said.

“Soak it, stir it, check it with the back of your hand when you think it’s cold,” he said. “Just keep doing that until there is no more heat in there.”

Cataldo also advised people to check their trailers and recreational vehicles to ensure they are in good working order. Fires often start when people inadvertently drag trailer chains or blow tires, he said.

One confirmed wildfire has started in Yellowstone this year. Lightning sparked the Elk Creek fire at the northern end of the park on June 24, which burned about a tenth of an acre before firefighters doused it. No human-caused fires have started so far, Cataldo said.

Wildfires play a natural role in Yellowstone’s ecosystem and, under the right conditions and in the right areas, they can be maintained, he said. Because conditions are hot and dry this early in the season, fire managers are focused on suppressing starts.

In the counties and municipalities that surround Yellowstone, staff are out posting information about Stage 1 and Stage 2 fire restrictions ahead of the holiday weekend, Cataldo said.

“It’s just not a good year to have (fireworks) as your Fourth of July celebration,” he said. “Celebrate the Fourth of July by not having firefighters risk their lives so you can have fun.”

On Wednesday, more than 100 fire scientists, including professors at Montana State University, published an article in “The Conversation” urging Montanans and others around the West to forgo fireworks this Fourth of July weekend.

“From 1992 to 2015, more than 7,000 wildfires started in the U.S. on July 4 — the most wildfires ignited on any day during the year,” the scientists wrote. “And most of these are near homes.”

Cathy Whitlock, Regents Professor Emerita of Earth Sciences at MSU, said much of the West is in a drought and the conditions are explosive for fires.

“In the wildland urban interface, most fires are caused by people. Very few are caused by lightning,” she said.

Whitlock said that according to data compiled by fire scientists, there is an anomalous peak in the number of fires that start around the West on the Fourth of July.

When soils and fuels are drier, all it takes is an ignition to start a wildfire, she said.

“We’re just telling people not to set off fireworks,” she said.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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