‘Successful’ Fire Season Quietly Concludes in Montana

One of the calmest fire seasons in a decade ends while other Western states battle record firestorms into fall

By Dillon Tabish

While nearby states remain entrenched in summer’s firestorm, Montana is concluding a relatively calm wildfire season.

Barely 22,600 acres, or 20 square miles, burned across the state this year, which is just 12 percent of the five-year average, according to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

“By all measures it was a successful season,” said Bob Harrington, Montana’s state forester, who delivered a review of the season last week to the Environmental Quality Council in Helena.

As the first measure of success, Harrington pointed at a safe summer without any serious accidents involving fire crews in Montana.

The number of overall fires statewide — 1,346, according to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center — was slightly below the 10-year average of 1,661. The DNRC, which provides a bulk of the state’s initial attack and other crews, responded to 251 fires, which is slightly above average.

“We exercised all of our firefighters. We were busy and we needed them but Mother Nature helped us to be successful,” Harrington said.

The spending levels for fire suppression were also significantly down from years’ past. Roughly $1.7 million was spent on fires, Harrington said, which is the lowest amount in a decade. The five-year average is roughly $19 million, which is skewed somewhat following the historic 2012 season, when a record 1.14 million acres burned statewide and cost roughly $113 million. The calm season leaves roughly $44 million in the state’s fire suppression account, which will be carried over for future wildfire seasons.

Harrington credited the successful season on Montana’ high-quality suppression efforts and also the aid of favorable weather, which dropped heavy rain in spring.

“We have to be thankful for these types of years because we know they won’t happen every year,” he said.

In Kalispell, crews stayed busy, responding to an average number of fires but keeping the amount of acreage burned below average, according to Ali Ulwelling, fire prevention specialist at the DNRC in Kalispell.

Debris burning season is slated to re-open in the valley Oct. 1. As a reminder, Ulwelling noted that crews historically stay busy in the fall responding to escaped debris piles, and that residents should take precaution when burning and always stay aware of conditions.

Despite cold weather, fires can still escape into grasslands and end up costing a landowner for crews’ suppression efforts, Ulwelling said.

While Montana’s season comes to an end, other states in the West continue battling large fires into fall. Washington is still battling its most destructive and costliest season on record. More than 550 square miles of land has burned this summer, six times more than the average, according to state officials. Suppression efforts have surpassed $81 million, well above the state’s annual budget of $25 million. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is seeking federal disaster assistance as September forecasts show worsening conditions that could lead to an extended fire season.

Oregon and California are faced with similar situations, as several large fires are blazing into September with high temperatures and winds challenging suppression efforts.

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