A Review of the Montana Wildfires of 2017

montana wildfires 2017

Over the course of the summer of 2017 Big Sky residents quickly got used to the lingering smell of the forests burning within their state. Montanans endured one of the worst wildfire seasons in decades marked by home evacuations and a state of emergency declared by the Governor. In addition, the grueling summer of 2017 also witnessed two firefighter fatalities and costs of $380 million in an effort to suppress the fires. Wildfires are not an anomaly to the state’s inhabitants between the months of May and October. However, this years’ situation was exacerbated by high temperatures, paltry rainfall, and desperate drought conditions throughout the state.  

Millions of Montana Acres Burned 

Angela Wells, a fire information officer with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said that “the period from June to August was the hottest and driest on record in Montana, and our fire season started about a month earlier than it usually does.”  Federal and State agencies partnered to dispatch thousands of firefighters and hundreds of Montana National Guard members to battle the flames of hundreds of large and small wildfires across the state. The situation reached dire circumstances in late September when Montana’s Congressional delegation along with Gov. Steve Bullock requested FEMA administrators to declare a state of emergency.  This declaration freed up federal dollars for emergency managers to seek fire management assistance grants and to expedite the state’s grant requests when they are filed.  When the smoke cleared, the total burned acreage of Montana lands was estimated at 1,295,959 acres.

Montana Blazed Caused by Lightning 

Fires impacted the entire state during the landmark 2017 season.  However, both the eastern and western portion of the state experienced escalated drought conditions and suffered through the worst of these circumstances.  In the eastern portion of the state, The Lodgepole Complex Fire located just outside of Jordan, Montana was at one point both the state’s and the nation’s largest fire of the 2017 wildfire season.  The complex was made up of several fires that started when lightning hit desiccated grasses.  The initial repercussions of the blaze resulted in 16 primary structures being destroyed by the fires.  Aside from the loss of cabins and houses, the fire obliterated over 270,000 acres of grazing land.  Unfortunately, the most tangible loss occurred in what the land doesn’t provide, a usable parcel that allows Montana’s cattle farmers to flourish.  Many ranchers watched as their grazing land burned and will now likely have to sell off cattle in the long winter months that they are unable to service with burned grasslands.  When the grasses return ranchers will have to contend with the cost of replacing the destroyed fencing needed to contain their cattle.  The cost, estimated at $15 million by Garfield County rancher Brett Dailey, will burden the already displaced Western Montana cattle cultivators with extra blow dealt to them by the 2017 fire season.

Historic Losses in the Montana Flames

The western portion of Montana was not spared any kindness during the historic fire season.  The Lolo Peak Fire burned in western Montana affected both Lolo and Bitterroot National Forests. The fire started in mid-July by lightning strikes on the western flank of Lolo Peak and quickly spread to a total of 539,026 acres by September.  In addition to the devastation of two homes and evacuation of 1,150 residences in the town of Lola, Montana, one firefighter, Brent Witham, was killed working the fire. Witham was a member of the Vista Grande Hotshots and one of the 650 firefighters assigned to the fire throughout its 3-month duration.  In the northwestern part of the state, fire claimed a historic backcountry chalet in Glacier National Park on September 1st.  The Sperry Chalet was built in 1913 and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977.  An unsuccessful effort mounted by 3 helicopters and countless firefighters at saving the historic structure was unable to quell the flames.  A bright spot in the 2017 season occurred when the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke made an official statement that rebuilding the Sperry Chalet would be a top priority and that a fund had been established by the Glacier National Park Conservancy Work to begin rebuilding the structure once the thaws begin in early spring 2018.

Extreme Droughts, Limited Use of Resources Contributed to Record Montana Wildfire Season

A combination of gusty winds, extreme drought conditions, and the limited use of available firefighting resources created a historic 2017 wildfire season. The fires throughout the state forced the evacuation of residents, scorched grazing lands, and resulted in the death of 2 members of our community.  The 2017 season has touched on an alarming trend throughout the Western region of the US.  Over the past 30 years forest wildfire activity in western United States forests has undergone an abrupt and sustained increase in both duration and intensity.  Scientists from the Sierra Nevada Research institute cite the change is linked to factors such as warmer temperatures, dry summers, below average winter precipitation or earlier spring snowmelt.  Unfortunately the trend of warm and dry summers where wildfires grow quickly does not seem to be subsiding.  John Tubbs, director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, stressed the importance of initial attack resources and vehicles such as those manufactured by BME fire. “The people out there got ahead of it and got it stopped,” Tubbs said. “It’s all about the initial attack. It’s about getting those fires out. They’ve stopped hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds. They could have all been multimillion dollar fires.”

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