Montana was the 41st state to join the union and was named after the Spanish word “montaña” which translates to “mountain”. The state boasts over 100 mountain ranges, 53 state parks, 7 state forests, 9 national parks, and over 3,000 named lakes and reservoirs, including the largest freshwater lake in the nation: Flathead Lake.
It ranks 4th in terms of size in acreage but the 44th in terms of population size. In other words, it has a low population density (of humans), however, you will find a very diverse population of mammals, particularly wild buffalo, elk, moose, grizzly bears, and golden eagles. It is the state with the highest variety of species in the nation.
Montana is nicknamed the Treasure State because of its rich mineral reserves, including gold, silver, palladium, platinum, copper, garnets, and bentonite. You’ll find many other treasures in the state, including one of the largest collections of dinosaur fossils and Traveler’s Rest, which is the only campsite that has archaeological evidence of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Montana has a diverse climate. The eastern part has a semi-arid, continental climate with cold winters and warm summers, whereas the western part has a coastal climate with mild winters and chilly summers. As Montanans like to say, “there are 10 months of winter and 2 months of soggy sledding.”
Much like all the rest of the United States, the Treasure State experiences a variety of natural disasters.
What natural disasters does Montana have?
Montana’s most common natural disasters include wildfires, floods, winter storms, severe storms, extreme heat and drought, earthquakes, landslides, tornadoes, and power outages.
Between 1953 and 2019, Montana declared 72 major disasters, of which fires and floods happened the most according to FEMA.
Wildfires are one of Montana’s largest natural disaster threats. The Treasure State ranks highest among the nation when it comes to the number of properties at risk of wildfire— over 137,800 homes, or 29%, are at risk. More than 600,000 people, or 62% of the state population, live in an area with an elevated risk of fire.
Montana ranks top 4 in the US when it comes to the number of fires and in the top 6 when it comes to the number of acres burned. In 2020, the state documented 2,433 fires which burned a cumulative of 369,633 acres. Studies show that over the course of the last years, the percentage of large fires in Montana has increased more than in any other western state.
The worst fire was the Big Burn of 1910. While the original cause was never determined, this fire was birthed out of several small fires that combined into one. The dry forests and forceful winds contributed to the insane spread which burned over 3 million acres across Montana, Idaho, Washington, and British Columbia. The fire killed 87 people and this remains the deadliest natural disaster in Montana.
Another major fire was the Yellowstone Fires of 1988. This one too started out as a small group of fires that combined to create a much larger one. The cause of the fires was determined to be lightning strikes in some cases and human-caused in others. Many animals perished and two people died. Over 793,000 acres burned. This event remains the largest wildfire in the history of the National Park Service.
The main cause of fires in Montana is dry thunderstorms which produce lightning. The second cause is linked to human activity. If you live in an area with a high risk of wildfires, we recommend reading about the mitigation strategies listed in this guide. Creating defensible space could save your home and property.
Also, be prepared to evacuate in case the fires get close enough that they threaten you and your family’s life.
Floods are the second most common disaster threat in Montana. There could be multiple causes of floods, such as heavy precipitation, ground saturation, overflowing rivers, ice and debris jams, rapid snowmelt, and dry wash.
Montana’s flood season begins in mid-May and lasts until mid-June. The snow from the mountains melts during the spring and early summer months, causing the rivers to swell with runoff. Spring rains contribute to the snow melting quickly and can cause flash flooding.
The worst flood in Montana’s history was the flood of June 1964. Over a period of two days, extremely heavy rain fell over a pre-existing heavy snowpack. This overwhelmed rivers and streams that drained from the Rocky Mountains. At least two dams failed— one in the Two-Medicine River, and the other on Birch Creek. This caused water to rush powerfully downstream. The waters reached unprecedented levels, more than 8,700 people were forced to evacuate their homes, 31 people died, and damage exceeded $62 million (1964 USD).
In order to be prepared for a flood, you should determine your home and property’s level of risk. You can do this by looking at local flood maps periodically. If your home is at a low or moderate level of risk now, know that the risk can increase over time due to topographical and environmental changes.
3. Winter Storms
Montana is practically synonymous with winter weather. In fact, some think of the state as an icebox! While the majority of the snow falls between November and March, heavy snowstorms can still occur as early as mid-September and as late as early May.
Montana gets quite a bit of snow but the amount varies throughout the state. In the western half, by the Rocky Mountains, you can expect up to 300 inches of annual snowfall whereas some areas in the east may receive as little as 20 inches. The average snowfall in larger cities varies between 30 and 50 inches.
Fun fact: The largest snowflake ever observed measured 15 inches in diameter and was discovered in Fort Keogh in 1887.
January is the coldest month of the year where frigid temperatures are common. The coldest temperature ever recorded in the Treasure State was -70°F at Rogers Pass on January 20, 1954. This also set a record for the coldest temperature in the contiguous United States!
Drastically fluctuating temperatures occur occasionally and can become very dangerous. Residents should remain prepared in such circumstances to prevent getting caught off guard. The greatest temperature change within a 12 hour period in the US occurred in Fairfield on December 24, 1924. Within a short twelve hours, the temperature went from 63°F to -21°F.
Another major temperature change occurred in January 1989 where a weeklong warm spell had residents and plant life believing that spring had sprung early. On January 30th, an Arctic mass swept through the Rockies and brought with it gusty winds between 100 mph and 124 mph. The following day, temperatures plummeted to -20°F and lower, with wind chills as low as -75°F. Temperatures remained this low until February 4th. The winds caused significant damage, including blowing over railroad carts, ripping roofs off of homes, tearing mobile homes apart, breaking trees, damaging power lines, and killing four people. This became one of the worst winter events in the state’s history.
Winter storms are no joke in Montana! It’s important to have enough food and water provisions stored in your home and car, as well as supplies to keep you and your loved ones warm.
Consider long-term and rolling power outages that may come as a result of severe storms and periods of high demand. In this guide, you can learn which crucial winter supplies we recommend you keep handy.
4. Severe Storms
Thunderstorms are most common during the summer months in Montana. These storms affect the mountainous areas and the eastern portion of the state more than the west.
Unlike many other parts of the United States, Montana’s storms are generally dry thunderstorms with light rainfall. These are the most dangerous because they produce lots of lightning without precipitation, therefore increasing the chances of wildfires. Montana ranks 35th among all US states when it comes to lightning-related deaths. Severe hailstorms occasionally occur as well and tend to cause significant damage to private property and crop fields.
One of the worst recent thunderstorms happened in August 2019. The storm produced record-breaking amounts of rainfall, strong gusty winds, and hail up to 2 inches in diameter. The destruction was extensive. It included damage to windows, homes, vehicles, outbuildings, trees, and scattered debris that blocked roads. Lightning from the storm was said to be the cause of a fire in the attic of a home and the hail slaughtered 11,000 birds.
Many thunderstorms come and go within thirty minutes. During periods of such severe weather, be sure to find a safe shelter until the storm has passed.
Remember that lightning can strike several miles outside of the storm as well as through windows. Take a look at this guide to learn how to stay safe during thunderstorms.
5. Extreme Heat & Drought
Due to its location on the map, most people tend to associate Montana with cold weather, but rarely consider that heat waves and droughts could occur there as well. Surprisingly, Montana has an average of 5 days a year where the temperature reaches exceedingly dangerous levels. By the year 2050, that number is projected to increase to 15 days a year!
July is the hottest month of the year with generally perfect summer weather. The average high ranges between 75°F to 88°F. The highest temperature recorded in the state was 117°F. This happened twice; the first time at Glendale on July 20, 1893, and the second at Medicine Lake on July 5, 1937. Over 25,000 Montanans are at risk of extreme heat illness.
Prologued periods of low precipitation and heat lead to one of Montana’s highest threats: widespread drought. One of the longest droughts in the Treasure State lasted 307 weeks. It began on May 16, 2000, and ended on March 28, 2006. As of the writing of this article, 19.9% of the state is under extreme drought, 41.1% is under severe drought, 17.4% is under moderate drought, and 14.1% is abnormally dry.
It’s important to do our part and be water wise, especially during long periods of drought.
Montana is located along the Intermountain Seismic Belt, which extends from the northwest of Montana to Yellowstone where the three states meet, through Utah, and into southern Nevada. The section within Montana measures 100 kilometers wide.
The western region of the Treasure State is said to be a hotbed of seismic activity with approximately 7 to 10 shakers per day. Earthquakes along this region are generally small in magnitude, however strong shakers have occurred occasionally as well.
The strongest earthquake to rattle the state occurred near Hebgen Lake at 11:37 pm in August 1959. It was dubbed the Yellowstone Earthquake and registered a magnitude of 7.2. It was the result of a rupture between two large parallel faults and caused an offset of 20 feet. It resulted in a massive landslide, $11 million worth of damages, and 28 fatalities.
It is believed that Montana will experience more significant earthquakes in the future, but it’s difficult to predict when this will happen. It’s imperative that Montanans become prepared by identifying and fixing vulnerabilities within their home’s structure as a means to mitigate possible damage in the future.
There are several events that can trigger landslides. For instance, in Montana, they can be caused by burn scars from wildfires, periods of heavy or consistent precipitation, erosion, and construction or manmade roads built over vulnerable slopes. Wherever you have peaks, slopes, and hilly terrain, there’s a risk of landslides.
There are 2,991 named peaks, summits, hills, and buttes, and possibly some unnamed ones too. Its highest natural point is Granite Peak which reaches 12,807 feet in elevation. (It’s possible that for this reason Montana has been nicknamed the Land of the Shining Mountains. )
One of the worst and deadliest landslides in the state’s history was the Madison Canyon Landslide that occurred on August 17, 1959. This was the landslide that happened after the Yellowstone Earthquake previously mentioned. A campground along the Madison River was completely buried and 24 campers were killed.
In order to become prepared for a landslide, you should determine your home and community’s level of risk, and plan accordingly.
Montana averages 10 tornadoes a year. These are generally small when compared to tornadoes in other parts of the United States, and rarely reach EF2 or EF3 intensity. Most tornadoes occur during the springtime and are most common in the eastern part of the state.
The worst tornado outbreak in the Treasure State was the Billings/ Father’s Day Tornado on June 20, 2010. The tornado reached EF2 intensity with wind speeds ranging between 120 and 135 mph. While it only lasted a total of 12 minutes, it caused extensive damage throughout the urban areas totaling $30 million (2010 USD) as well as minor injures.
Since tornadoes are not too common, it’s important to practice your emergency plan and identify a safe location where you can take shelter until the threat has passed.
If you don’t have a storm-proof shelter, it’s best to go to the lower level of your home, and shelter in an interior room with no exterior-facing windows. Our tornado preparedness guide highlights many important safety tips. You can read it here.
9. Power Outages
Our electrical systems are vulnerable to natural disasters and human error, therefore we should plan for long-term or rolling outages, especially during harsh weather conditions.
One of the most severe outages in the state occurred between July 2 and 3 in 1996 and was called the West Coast Blackout. The outage was caused by a system error in which the grid failed due to voltage instability. Two million people were affected throughout the West Coast, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Idaho, and Montana.
More recently, another major outage occurred in northwestern Montana. It left over 37,000 people without electricity as a result of a thunderstorm with heavy winds that knocked out power lines.
Power outages can disrupt our lives in numerous ways, from interrupting our primary methods of long-distance communication to spoiling all of the food in our refrigerators to causing health issues in those who depend on electronic medical devices.
We should consider the option of long-term power outages very seriously and learn what to do to stay safe in the midst of one. In this guide, you can find safety tips as well as a list of recommended items that you should add to your emergency kit.
Natural disaster resources for Montana
There are several different types of natural disasters that can occur in Montana, so it’s crucial that you become prepared ahead of time. The following resources can help you in your preparedness journey.
- Stay in the know of developing storms and hazardous weather with the NOAA app. You can download it to any device for free. Keep the notifications turned on so that you can be sure to hear the alerts in real-time.
- When it comes to disasters, we know they’re powerful and destructive but no two disasters are alike. Becoming prepared means you have to learn what makes each disaster unique and tailor your plans accordingly. In our guides, you will learn just that as well as how to mitigate possible damage, how to stay safe, and which items can help you overcome post-disaster challenges. Find all of our disaster guides here and be sure to download the checklists at the end.
- Take your emergency preparedness knowledge to the next level by joining the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). This organization trains people like you to help respond during an emergency. All classes and disaster simulations are free. Find your local CERT here.
- After a disaster occurs, the affected communities heavily rely on the support of their neighbors to help meet their immediate and basic needs. Montana’s Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) is one of the organizations that assesses what the needs are. Based on their existing registrar of local businesses and organizations, they gauge which resources are available and help to deliver them to the community in need. If you would like to be a part of this organization or connect your business with VOAD, connect with them through their website.
- Disaster assistance, whether it be before or after a disaster has occurred, is handled differently by each state. In Montana specifically, you will want to get in touch with the Disaster and Emergency Services Office for more information on the resources that may be available to you.
I hope you enjoyed learning about natural disasters in Montana.
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Want to look up another state? Find out which disasters are likely to happen in other parts of the United States here!