State wildfire season costs $95M

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The Howe Ridge Fire burns in Glacier Park Sunday evening. (Chris Peterson photo)

Montana escaped the 2018 fire season bearing a fraction of the damage incurred in 2017, with a total of 1,239 fire starts accounting for a loss of approximately 96,000 acres, according to a year-to-date report by the Northern Rockies Coordination Center.

A total of 35 wild land fires reached over 100 acres statewide between July and October, costing the state upward of $95 million. The cost of fighting fires that burned less than 100 acres has not yet been released.

All but one of the season’s major burns extinguished at under 10,000 acres, a stark contrast to the 2017 fire season totaling approximately 1.3 million acres.

Human-caused starts accounted for nearly 900 starts statewide, according to the report, but the 400 lightning-caused fires claimed over three quarters of the total acreage lost.

The largest fire of the year was one of two to impact Glacier National Park, together torching 17,400 acres of national park land.

Topping the list this year at 14,000 acres, the Howe Ridge Fire, burning on the northwestern shore of Lake McDonald, would have placed as the 18th largest fire in 2017, when four wildfires burned over 50,000 acres each and two devoured over 100,000 acres.

Howe Ridge destroyed more than half of the 47 total structures lost to wildfires statewide, with multiple historic buildings and private residences in Kelly’s Camp among the 27 structures destroyed in Glacier.

At $14.8 million in firefighting costs, Howe Ridge was the second most expensive fire of the year, with the 6,700-acre Gold Hill Fire north of Libby costing nearly $16 million.

Despite its smaller size, the Gold Hill Fire, located in the Kootenai National Forest, drained more resources than most by threatening to spread to a closed vermiculite mine site, the source of the Libby asbestos contamination.

The Kootenai National Forest also had one of the earliest and longest-burning major fires of the season, with the Davis Fire igniting July 29 and burning until Oct. 30.

The Davis Fire burned approximately 4,000 acres in Montana and crossed the boarder to burn another 2,500 in Canada, boosting total firefighting costs to $13.5 million.

Other major fires located in the Kootenai area included the 2,000-acre Garden Creek Fire costing $3.4 million, the 1,400-acre Sterling Complex fires costing $7.1 million, the 1,300-acre Rattlesnake Fire costing $950,000 and the 700-acre Ten Mile Fire costing $6.9 million.

A majority of the season’s largest wild land fires including the high-profile Paola Ridge, Coal Ridge and Whale Butte fires in Flathead National Forest, ignited during widespread lightning event on Aug. 11 that affected most of the northwestern portion of the state.

Together, the Paola Ridge, Coal Ridge and Whale Butte fires cost a total of around $6.2 million, burning nearly 2,000 acres of national forest land.

According to Rick Connell, fire management officer for Flathead National Forest, his division of the U.S. Forest Service divided its attention between the three Flathead National Forest fires as well as the Brownstone, Juliet and Moose Creek fires, consuming another 7,000 acres and $150,000 in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

The last five years fluctuated dramatically in fire season severity, with last year breaking records for acreage burned.

According to Chris Barth, public information officer for the Northern Rockies Coordination Center, 2018 fell on the lower end of average when compared to recent years.

Factors contributing to this year’s number, according to Connell, include the lack of major lightning events and a late start.

Normal fire seasons, Connell said, typically begin between late May and mid-June, but the Forest Service did not see its first wildfire until around mid-July.

This summer’s conditions allowed fire managers to handle fires differently than in extreme years, using different methods of firefighting that allow for forward-thinking in how they might impact the area and residents in years to come.

For more information about the 2018 Montana fire season, visit https://gacc.nifc.gov/nrcc/predictive/intelligence/ytd_historical/ytd-daily-state.htm.

Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or mtaylor@dailyinterlake.com.

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