The rain and snow were a welcome relief to firefighters and Montana residents, but the state is not out of danger yet. While fire risk levels have been lowered and evacuations lifted across the state, in many spots the scant rains did not reach through thick forests to the dry tinder underneath the canopy.
State of Emergency
As of Sept. 20, Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier National Park was still in danger after closing early this year before mandatory evacuations were in effect. The smoke was so bad there was concern about employees wellbeing and health. To date, 2017 has been the most expensive year in U.S. history to fight forest fires and has already cost the country two billion dollars. The fires raging across the western U.S. have torched 1.7 million acres in Montana,Washington, Idaho, California and Oregon. Over 500,000 of those acres are in Montana alone.
Drought came early to the state this year, and Governor Bullock declared Montana in fire emergency on June 23. By Aug. 11, Bullock declared a state of emergency, demonstrating how quickly drought can escalate wildfires. Montana is experiencing the third worst fire season in the state’s history. The worst fire season on record occurred in 2012 at a total of 1,497,972 acres lost.
The U.S. has seen over 8.4 million acres burn this year and excessive drought and winds have exacerbated the problem, flinging embers into already parched forests and grasslands and spreading the threat of fire. Montana has been hit hard by fires this year, and the overall cost has reached $140 million, with the state’s cost now reaching $54 million. The record spending on fire fighting and prevention in Montana was $55 million in 2012, which may be shattered by the end of September. Fire emergency budgets have been depleted across the West, requiring agencies to dip into forest management funds to keep the efforts going.
While Montanans have dealt with fires and smoke in the past, this year’s air quality has been exceptionally poor due to extreme drought in every county in Montana. Dryness, coupled with relentless fire activity, has left most of the state choking on smoky air, hindering outdoor activities. The Living History Farm at the Museum of the Rockies saw attendance go down this summer during the height of fire activity. Celina Walker, Lead Interpreter for the Tinsley House said, “We usually get 500-600 visitors a day, but we saw numbers drop to 300-400 visitors a day. More people visited from the Missoula area because the air quality was better here.” When asked how the fires impacted his summer, Biochemistry student Dan Peters replied, “I could not go outside as much as I wanted to and when I could, it did not feel healthy.” Garrett Morris summed it up best when he replied, “It kind of sucked. You couldn’t see the mountains or see the eclipse as well because of the smoke.”
Fighting the Fires
Normally, while one area of Montana is dry and prone to fires, the other areas remain wet enough to keep fires isolated and contained. With so much of the state at risk, fighting the wildfires has been a challenge for local communities. Fires considered priority are not determined by size, but by the threats they pose to public safety and structure loss. The iconic Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park was reduced to rubble and two firefighters tragically lost their lives fighting wildfires in western Montana within a span of two weeks. The largest fires include the Lolo National Forest, Sapphire complex and the Rice Ridge area, where thousands were evacuated from their homes and businesses. Efforts by Montana firefighters, many of whom are volunteers, have helped to keep fires from spreading and becoming multi-million dollar losses.
Predictably, Montanans have banded together and rallied their neighbors to help firefighters, local communities and businesses affected by wildfires through fundraising efforts. A site has been set up through the Montana Community Foundation where many local businesses have agreed to match up to $50,000 dollars in donations. Donations can be made through the website mtcf.org/Giving/Give-Now?fn=Montana+Wildfire+Relief+Fund