Firefighting costs top $45 million

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With drenching rains and high-elevation snow this weekend, fire management officials in Northwest Montana are finally calling the historic 2015 fire season over.

At least 529 wildland fires scorched more than 219,000 acres in the region and racked up more than $45.7 million in suppression costs this year, according to preliminary tallies from the Northern Rockies Coordination Center, which oversees fire management agencies.

Those agencies — including the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and state and tribal fire offices — are still tallying up the dollars and cents consumed by wildfire suppression this summer, and some of the longest-burning fires are still adding slightly to the total.

The most expensive fire in Northwest Montana, by far, was the $12.8 million Reynolds Creek Fire.

Having covered 4,850 acres in Glacier National Park, it was far smaller than many of the massive fires that raced through the forested mountains in the region. But it was also one of the earliest fires (it started on July 21), and as it grew rapidly along Going-to-the-Sun Road toward the town of St. Mary, it got a lot of attention.

The only high-level, Type 1 incident management team deployed in the country at the time employed up to 670 firefighters and support staff battling the flames as a phalanx of helicopters wracked up high costs shuttling continuously between the fire and St. Mary Lake.

Park officials believe that unlike many of the lightning-caused fires that would pop up later in the summer, the Reynolds Creek Fire was human-caused. If caught, that person could be on the hook for the full suppression costs.

The other major fire in the park this summer was the remote Thompson Fire, which scorched 21,931 acres but was not as actively suppressed, costing the park about $1 million before it was turned over to the Thompson-Divide Complex management team. Total costs from that fire complex — which included the Sheep and Granite fires south of U.S. 2 outside Glacier — are currently estimated at $7.2 million.

In the Flathead National Forest, fire suppression costs totaled about $14.5 million, including the $3.2 million spent on the 70,906-acre Bear Creek Fire on the Spotted Bear Ranger District. Additional costs from rehabilitation are expected to continue piling up into next year.

The Trail Creek Fire was the forest’s second-largest. Also in the Spotted Bear District, it spanned 21,968 acres and cost $520,000.

The Glacier Rim Fire north of Columbia Falls only burned 100 acres but was the first major wildland fire of the summer. It cost $1.6 million to put out, due mainly to the heavy use of air resources in the hazardous, snag-ridden fire area.

Overall, Flathead National Forest had 119 wildfires this year, with 98,311 acres burned.

Across the Divide, the Lewis and Clark National Forest’s Rocky Mountain Ranger District fires burned through more than 64,000 acres and cost at least $3.1 million.

Fires in the Kootenai National Forest cost more than $15 million as fire crews responded to 176 wildfires that burned through a total area of 32,132 acres.

Nearly half of those expenses came from the Northeast Kootenai Complex, just three miles west of Fortine. The fires prompted fears of a possible evacuation of the community as the main fire raged on Mount Marston, and $6.9 million was spent suppressing the fire, which toward the end of its most active period set up for a possible run through the Whitefish Range and toward the North Fork. It burned 7,120 acres.

The Kootenai also had several other major fire complexes this summer, including the $4.5 million Goat Rock Complex, the $3 million Clark Fork Complex and the Napoleon 1 Fire, five miles north of Noxon, which burned 8,967 acres and cost nearly $1 million.

Seven miles north of Seeley Lake, the Morrell Complex fires burned 870 acres and cost $3.1 million.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ fire management team responded to 73 wildfires on the reservation, the largest of which was the 3,303-acre Melton 1 Fire.

Fire spokesman C.T. Camel said, the tribes’ total suppression spending for the season was not yet available.

While many regional fire officials anticipate this weekend’s precipitation to finally provide the long-awaited season-ending event, Forest Service officials noted that some pockets of burned vegetation could continue smoking well into the winter.


Reporter Samuel Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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