The hills are green and there’s still snow up high, but Montana officials say they’re prepared for when it’s all set to burn.

John Monzie, deputy chief of fire protection for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Thursday told the Environmental Quality Council that while the state is inching into fire season at a “moderate slow rate,” DNRC has been getting ready.

The agency is down a few permanent positions, including a helicopter pilot, a mechanic and a training officer, and one of its aircraft needs a part. But DNRC has hired its seasonal firefighters and spruced up its 60 frontline fire engines, so Monzie said they’re ready for whatever comes this way.

“We’re staffed up; we’re ready to respond,” Monzie said.

Fire season has begun this early before in Montana, but this year hasn’t been one of those years. So far, the state has seen 44 fires that have burned a total of 42 acres, according to Monzie.

By July 1, the agency is often staging firefighting resources near places it expects fire. That hasn’t happened yet, but Monzie said officials will be watching closely to identify areas with increased fire risk.

“We know if we go through a dry pattern it won’t take many days for the entire state to be hot and dry,” Monzie said.

Other parts of the country are already burning. The National Interagency Fire Center says more than 673,000 acres have burned in more than 18,000 fires since Jan. 1. Large wildfires are burning in Alaska, Arizona, California and New Mexico, among other places, according to NIFC. Monzie said a DNRC crew had been sent to a fire in Alberta, Canada, and two staffers were sent to Alaska.

Maps prepared by national fire officials show normal fire potential for all of Montana for June, but danger will increase as summer rolls on. The predictive maps show above normal fire potential for the state’s far northwestern corner beginning in July and lasting through the summer.

That area is one that’s drier than usual this year. The U.S. Drought Monitor indicated Thursday that part of the area had severe drought conditions. Other parts of the region were listed as abnormally dry.

Sara Meloy, a DNRC water planner, told the council that the agency is also concerned about the northeastern corner of the state, too, where several counties are listed as abnormally dry. She also said a portion of southwestern Montana straddling Beaverhead and Madison counties is abnormally dry.

The dry spot is in the southern Snowcrest and Gravelly mountains near the Idaho border. Natural Resource Conservation Service data show the area has received well below normal precipitation over the past two months.

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

Michael Wright covers the environment and wildlife issues for the Chronicle.

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