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The unprecedented drought that's crippling Montana and North Dakota

As of late August, the US Drought Monitor classified all of Montana in some stage of drought, with 65% of the state’s vast lands in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought.

“The new normal is that now we have a warmer world, in times when you’re not getting your normal load of rain, things can go bad very quickly,” said Brenda Ekwurzel, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Partly as a result of the drought, Montana is also dealing with one of its worst wildfire seasons on record. As of early September, wildfires have burned more than 1m acres – among the state’s top five most devastating fire seasons in terms of acres burned – and forecasts suggest the destruction will continue for weeks.

In south-eastern Montana, cattle rancher Lillian Ostendorf explains taking turns on fire lookout duty, which entails sitting on top of a hill scanning the horizon, watching for smoke to flare up on the wide-open prairie. Fires come up quickly and move fast. Just last week, a fire that sparked on her family’s ranch spread several miles before it was put out. The situation requires constant, exhausting vigilance.

“There’s lots of different stories about things starting fires right now. Everything from a horseshoe hitting a rock to lightning to vehicles going down the highway,” she says.

John Youngberg, director of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, says the extreme summer is forcing farmers and ranchers to make tough decisions every day about what they can salvage. Thus far, there’s no comprehensive estimate on agricultural losses this year in the region but the drought is taking a certain toll.

“It’s a lot of pressure on people and it’s affecting people psychologically,” said Youngberg.

Further to the north-west, in Jordan, near the heart of a now-contained Lodgepole Complex fire that burned 270,000 acres this summer, farmers and ranchers say the actual toll of the fire on livestock and future crops could take years to see.

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