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Prairies on Fire in Montana Amid a Record December Heat Wave

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HELENA, Mont. — Record-high temperatures and powerful winds have sparked a series of unusual December prairie fires in Montana, one of a series of late-season fires across the country amid an unusually warm approach to the winter season.

The worst of the fires ripped through the small farming town of Denton, about 85 miles east of Great Falls, burning at least two dozen homes and businesses and sending several grain elevators up in flames.

Witnesses described rail cars melted, piles of grain and haystacks burning and firefighters staged on the football field at the local school.

“It’s definitely not a good sign that it is this dry in December and this warm,” said Brock Linker, a farmer and volunteer firefighter in Denton. “We’ve had zero moisture since May and no sign of any in the future.”

The fires came as an unusual heat wave broke records across large portions of the United States and Canada. Temperatures from the Great Plains to the Mid-Atlantic were 20 to 30 degrees above normal for early December, reaching into the 60s and 70s, the National Weather Service said.

In Colorado, firefighters only recently managed to contain a wildfire in the northern part of the state, near Estes Park, that had led to a wave of evacuations. And in North Carolina, firefighters were still battling a blaze at Pilot Mountain State Park that had burned more than 1,000 acres.

A firefighter with the North Carolina Forest Service sprayed hot spots from a wildfire at Pilot Mountain State Park that damaged more than 1,000 acres.Credit…Allison Lee Isley/The Winston-Salem Journal, via Associated Press

Fire season in Montana usually ends in September or October. Snow often falls in November, and can last on the ground until spring. But this year has seen almost no snow, and temperatures have climbed into the high 60s.

Cathy Whitlock, a paleoclimatologist at Montana State University, said the late-season fires and other extremes were a product of the global climate crisis. She said the current drought in Montana had exceeded all previous measurements and took the state into “uncharted territory” as the end of the year approaches.

“We’re looking at conditions we haven’t seen for a thousand years in Montana and probably longer in terms of the drought,” she said. “Temperatures are exceeding what we have seen for the last 11,000 years.”

The fire on the outskirts of Denton initially erupted around midnight on Tuesday night. “It was burning toward a house and we got it pretty well out,” Mr. Linker said. “Then around daylight Wednesday morning, the wind started blowing very, very hard and pushed the fire straight into town.”

Three of four grain elevators went up in flames, including one owned by Mr. Linker, and the blaze took down power poles and knocked out electricity. It was the third wildfire this year in the area of Denton, a town of about 200 people.

A fire burned through the Gibson Flats area south of Great Falls, Mont., destroying 11 homes, seven garages and 11 outbuildings, fire officials said.Credit…Rion Sanders/The Great Falls Tribune, via Associated Press

Mr. Linker said more than 50 fire crews responded from across central Montana. Fighting the blaze from the air was impossible, he said, with gusts at Great Falls reported at 65 miles per hour and higher.

The Fergus County Sheriff’s Office lifted its evacuation warning and allowed people to return to town at noon on Thursday. “We encourage the community not to let its guard down as we expect high winds again today,” a news release from the sheriff’s office said.

Another fire on the edge of Great Falls swept through a subdivision early Wednesday morning, burning 11 homes and numerous outbuildings. And two fires swept across the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, in Browning, where winds of up to 85 m.p.h. were reported. One was still burning late Thursday, with tribal offices and schools closed because of high fire danger.

No deaths or injuries have been reported.

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