As hotter-than-average temperatures across the western U.S. rocked already drought-stricken regions in mid-June 2021, Montana experienced its first large-scale wildfire of the season. And one photographer captured the severity of weather conditions as a fire burned the mountainside of Red Lodge, a small Montana town of just over 2,200 residents that hugs the Wyoming border.
Downtown Red Lodge at about 9:00 this evening pic.twitter.com/rfkz3TbqrY
— Forrest Mandeville (@FJMandeville) June 16, 2021
The above photograph was taken by Forrest Mandeville around 9:00 p.m. on June 15. It was looking south on Broadway Avenue — the town’s main street — toward the Beartooth Mountains, where the Robertson Draw Fire exploded from 2,000 to nearly 21,000 in just over two days. It was then shared on Facebook by the Montana NBC affiliate KECI on June 16.
Snopes spoke with Maritsa Georgiou-Hamilton, a journalist with NBC Montana, who said that while fire starts are common and typically stay small this early in the season, extreme heat and low humidity have pushed this fire to be one of a magnitude not often seen this early in the summer.
“This year has just been so dry, and then we hit the 95th percentile on the Hot-Dry-Windy Index yesterday [June 15], which the meteorologist told me is just unheard of for June. That’s something they expect in August. They saw temperatures nearing 100 yesterday, and it should be in the low to mid-70s,” said Georgiou-Hamilton.
Georgiou-Hamilton has been reporting on fire season since 2007 and became immersed in covering Montana wildfires during the “horrific fire year” of 2017.
“I think everyone is bracing for a rough fire season,” said Georgiou-Hamilton.
At the time of this writing, the wildfire tracking website INCIWEB estimated the fire size at 21,000 acres. Multiple evacuation orders and warnings were in place for areas near the fire and 80 firefighters and personnel were focusing efforts on structure protection and containment
“Montanans are understandably worried. I’ve heard countless people already say, ‘I can’t believe this is happening so early.’ There’s an extreme concern for what the rest of this season will look like when we have a 20,000-acre fire this early,” said Georgiou-Hamilton.
And according to Georgiou-Hamilton, fire officials and meteorologists are expecting above-average fire potential across the region, as well as more lightning that could contribute to fire starts.
Fire officials say they are currently investigating the cause of the fire, which is believed to have started on June 13 around 3:00 p.m. local time. As crews continue to battle the flames, abnormally high temperatures paired with low humidity and strong, gusty winds are expected to “create erratic fire behavior.” It comes as a dangerous heatwave hits the western U.S. and could see temperatures as high as 120 degrees in some places, exacerbating already drought-stricken regions.
Fire weather will remain active across the West today and tomorrow. Dry and windy conditions will lead to several areas of elevated fire weather. Another concern will be dry thunderstorm activity in the Southwest and central Rockies, which could promote fire starts in dry fuels. pic.twitter.com/rskRuYLHd9
— NWS Storm Prediction Center (@NWSSPC) June 16, 2021
Photographs and videos of the Robertson Draw Fire were shared on social media by users who were familiar with the area.
While others offered help should families need to leave their homes due to evacuation orders.