News & Features

Scorching Summer

Communities and neighbors band together to endure an ‘unprecedented’ fire season

Montana went from waterlogged to wilted this summer after a wet winter and spring gave way to record dry spells, rapidly roasting the landscape and enabling one of the most severe fire seasons in the state’s history.

The challenging fire season has led to lost homes, historic structures and livestock, and tragically took the lives of two firefighters. Entire communities have been evacuated due to hazardous air quality, and the tourism and recreation industries have endured losses.

As quickly as the forests dried, so too has the state’s fire-suppression fund been drained, both due to the staggering costs of battling this summer’s blazes as well as the 2017 Legislature’s cost-cutting decision to slash its fire budget in half.

When state lawmakers made their final budgetary decisions to tap the fire fund late last April, it would have been difficult to imagine smoke-choked skies and widespread evacuation orders across the state. But spring yielded to significant drought, creating prime fire conditions.

The cost-cutting bill carved $30 million out of the $62 million fire fund to maintain a $200 million cushion designed to lessen cuts that other state agencies and operations would endure in the event that state revenues came in lower than projected — a scenario that occurred in July, triggering deep, across-the-board cuts.

Now Montana is burning, and the $32.5 million fire account has been spent. The state is covering the costs by tapping into the budget of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the governor’s emergency fund.

As wildfire season becomes prolonged and blazes grow more intense, the rising cost of firefighting is eating up state and federal budgets at an unsustainable pace, and a funding fix remains hard to identify.

At the time the Beacon went to print, the state was battling 20 major fires burning more than 450,000 acres, with more than 125 aircraft, 400 engines and more than 4,000 firefighters on the ground.

The state applied for and received assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which approved disaster assistance for three large and costly western Montana wildfires.

FEMA funding is available to pay 75 percent of the state’s eligible firefighting costs for fires near Lincoln, Seeley Lake and Libby. The grants can help with expenses for fire camps, equipment, tools, materials and supplies. They do not help individual home or business owners or infrastructure damage.

FEMA funding is the primary way the state receives aid from the federal government to pay for the cost of fighting fires, and both of Montana’s U.S. senators, Republican Steve Daines and Democrat Jon Tester, addressed their colleagues on the Senate floor this week to describe the magnitude and impact of fires burning in their home state as Congress worked to approve aid for Texas, which has been devastated by Hurricane Harvey.

Still, the costs to the state are staggering.

The average annual cost of fighting fires in Montana is $20.6 million, offset by an average of $5.2 million in federal reimbursements, according to legislative records. In particularly dire years, however, state fire suppression costs have been exponentially more expensive, topping $100 million in 2008 and $57 million in 2013.

According to a U.S. Forest Service report in 2015, the cost of wildfire suppression has tripled over the past 30 years.

In the month of July alone, Montana spent $21 million responding to fires, which is equal to the amount it cost for the entire year before that.

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Charred hillsides above a barn in West Kootenai on Sept. 10, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

‘It Sounded Like a Jet Engine’

Lincoln County copes with an ‘unprecedented’ fire season

By Justin Franz

WEST KOOTENAI — It started with a bolt of lightning and a wisp of smoke deep in the wilderness. It ended up becoming a “firestorm.”

The Caribou Fire was first reported near Robinson Mountain on Aug. 11 at just 50 acres. Wind was fanning the flames, but with resources stretched thin across the region, firefighters could do little more than drop an occasional bucket of water from the air and monitor the situation.

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Signs supporting firefighters have popped up around the state. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

In Times of Trouble, Neighbors Unite

Residents of Plains dig their own fire line and open up their doors to neighbors

By Molly Priddy

PLAINS — The air was heavy and still, the smoke from the nearby lightning-caused Sheep Gap Fire painting a sickly, brownish-red film on the scenery.

At their home on Swamp Creek Road last week, William (Bill) and Nancy Dorn had a trailer packed and hitched to their SUV, ready for the sheriff’s deputy to knock on their door and tell them their pre-evacuation status had been upgraded and it was time to go.

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A tender sprays water on vegetation near the Lake McDonald Lodge as the Sprague Fire burns in Glacier National Park on Sept. 7, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

‘It’s Not Over Yet’

The summer of 2017 was already cementing itself in the history of Glacier Park, then the fires started

By Justin Franz

LAKE McDONALD — In August, Glacier National Park was teeming with humanity. Campgrounds were full, parking lots were packed and more than 908,000 people flooded through the gates of America’s 10th national park. But two months after the rain disappeared, so too have the tourists.

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