Montanans Know Red Flag Warnings. Some Say They’re Not Effective
Fire season came late this year to Montana thanks to a cool, wet spring. But we all knew it was just a matter of time before the state started catching on fire and it looks like we're just getting started. Typically, it won't end until the snow flies.
The Montana DNRC interactive fire map provides up-to-date info on each fire that's popped up. Currently, the largest active fire in the state is the Elmo fire near Flathead Lake, which has burned at least 18,000 acres and has forced evacuations in the area.
The Red Flag Warning system was devised in the 1960s.
According to the National Weather Service, a Red Flag Warning means,
Warm temperatures, very low humidities, and stronger winds are expected to combine to produce an increased risk of fire danger.
Most counties in Montana have now implemented various stages of fire bans, so you probably won't be lighting too much on fire in the first place right now. The National Weather Service reminds us to be extremely cautious with sparks and open flames. Do not throw cigarette butts out the window. If you use a burn barrel, it must be covered with a weighted metal grate that has holes no larger than 3/4 of an inch. Never leave a fire unattended and make sure they are 100% extinguished and cool to the touch when you leave.
Is the Red Flag Warning System very effective?
Developed by NOAA and the NWS, the system was designed to "alert forecast users to an ongoing or imminent critical fire weather pattern. The warning is issued as needed for anywhere in the country." It was primarily designed as a guide for fire management crews to determine daily staffing levels and make tactical decisions, according to this report by multiple federal and state weather agencies.
A review of the Red Flag Warning System was ordered.
In 2019, NOAA, the NWS, and other agencies committed to a two-year review of the effectiveness of the Red Flag Warning System. They noted some problems with the current system, including:
- There is no single, standard definition of what determines issuing a Red Flag Warning.
- They also issue "Fire Weather Watches" (not common in MT), leading to confusion.
- Red Flag Warnings are issued so frequently that the public is numb to the alerts.
The Colorado Sun reported earlier this year that part of the problem is that the Red Flag Warnings were never really meant for the general public, adding that there was no warning issued on the day the devastating Marshall Fire ripped through Colorado last summer.