Season’s end: Summer of fires, record-breaking heat comes to a close

Eight-year-old Ellen Ruby will remember the weddings – she was in two – and the camping trips when she thinks back on the summer of 2003.

Her mom will remember the way they celebrated the season’s last hours Monday, eating ice cream with friends on the best kind of almost-fall afternoon.

“Awesome,” came Jo Ruby’s critique.

And yes, they’ll all remember the forest fires and smoke that held western Montana hostage for much of the summer.

But they won’t miss that part, said Linda Butler, friend to Jo and mother of 8-year-old Nancy. Not even when the wind blows icy cold come January.

For better or worse, summer took its leave of western Montana at 4:47 a.m. Tuesday, Mountain Daylight Time.

Tuesday, the autumnal equinox, will bring another glorious afternoon, forecasters at the National Weather Service promised, and almost even measure of daylight and dark.

(Sunrise comes at 7:24 a.m. and sunset just a little more than 12 hours later at 7:32 p.m.)

Weather Service record keepers were a busy bunch in recent months. July was the third warmest ever in Missoula, as were the combined months of June through August.

“Hot and dry, hot and dry, and then hot and dry,” said Crystal Lake, a hydrometeorological technician at the National Weather Service’s Missoula office.

Even in June.

Missoula broke a 63-year record on June 18 with a high temperature of 97 degrees, Lake said. And the average maximum temperature for the month – 76.9 degrees – was 2.4 degrees above normal.

Normally a cool and rainy month, June brought just 1.1 inches of rain this year, more than a half-inch below normal.

“Everything was setting up for trouble,” Lake said.

Then came July, with a record-setting 103 degrees on the 23rd and an average maximum temperature 7.8 degrees above normal.

In the end, July was the third hottest such month in 111 years in Missoula, with an average high temperature of 91.4 degrees.

August didn’t bring much relief; it was, in fact, the 10th warmest August on record, with an average daily maximum of 87.5 degrees.

The norm: 83.2 degrees.

On Aug. 26, Missoula tied the record for the most hot-hot days in one summer, with 20 days posting high temperatures of 95 degrees or better.

The sun worshippers were loving it, among them Desiree Williams, a senior at Sentinel High School who spent three weeks as a camp counselor at Georgetown Lake.

Warm enough to swim in the lake? “Absolutely,” she said. “I kind of wish it was still summer. It was a lot of fun.”

Friend Eris Miller, also a Sentinel senior, spent the summer working at a camp north of Seattle, so missed Missoula’s hot and fiery theatrics.

But guess what? Seattle also set a record for sun and warmth.

Fifty days in a row, the thermometer at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport hit 70 degrees. And it’s sunny still.

“Summer? There was no summer for fire dispatchers,” said Colleen Finneman, who presides over the Northern Rockies Coordination Center at the Aerial Fire Depot in Missoula.

From July 1 through mid-September, Finneman’s staff matched firefighters with fires throughout Montana, northern Idaho, North Dakota and Yellowstone National Park.

“We put a team on the Dixon Complex on July 1,” she said, “and never looked back. “Our last team just went to do rehab on the Myrtle fire (near Bonners Ferry, Idaho) last week. And we could see more fires yet this fall.”

Fall’s not the season dispatchers look forward to, Finneman said. They want to see snow on the ground. They want to turn the calendar on December.

As of Sunday, the northern Rockies had recorded 3,593 wildfires in 2003, with 895,174 acres burned. Of that number, about 2,200 fires and 758,000 burned acres belonged to Montana.

But on the last day of summer, Finneman was happy to report “nothing burning – let’s put it that way. None of the large fires are burning.”

Of course, now her office is taking calls from folks on the East Coast, wondering how many crews she might have available for hurricane cleanup duty.

“And they usually have a fall fire season in the South,” she said. “And this is the time when we start dealing with human-caused fires. It’s still dry out there, and we can get wind this time of year, too, and cold fronts. Fires could take off from that.”

But still, have you ever seen a nicer afternoon than Monday?

“Perfect,” said Judy Ellis, who enjoyed a well-deserved ice cream treat after a summer’s work at the Missoula Osprey Pioneer League baseball team.

Ellis is a co-owner of the team, so always thinks “work” when she sees the word “summer.”

The Osprey played 35 home games this summer, through the sunshine and smoke and with wildfires visible on the surrounding mountains.

But the Pioneer League season is over, so Ellis has time for ice cream and sun-streaked afternoons.

As did the Ruby and Butler children and their moms.

“Nancy made us come,” Jo Ruby said of her daughter’s friend. “She came running out of school, saying ‘Free ice cream!’ “

In honor of the 100th birthday of the ice cream cone, Dairy Queen gave all takers a free treat on Monday, while collecting donations for the Children’s Miracle Network.

At the Higgins Avenue outlet, there were lots and lots of takers when school let out for the day.

Even Badger, the Ruby family dog, got a cone.

Summer’s fun, 8-year-olds Nancy and Ellen agreed.

“Camping.”

“Silverwood.”

“Weddings.”

But fall’s fun. too.

“Playing outside.”

“Leaves to jump in.”

“And more ice cream.”

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