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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

2017 Fire Season Is Montana's Most Expensive Since 1999

West Fork firefighter serving as a lookout for Hotshot crews working below on the Nelson Creek fire.
West Fork firefighter serving as a lookout for Hotshot crews working below on the Nelson Creek fire.

Both state and federal governments have spent a combined $378 million this year battling blazes.

This was the most expensive fire season in Montana since at least 1999, when adjusted for inflation. Montanans may need to prepare for similar wildfire seasons in the future.

The financial figures from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation do not take into account fires that are less than 100 acres in size, and reliable data only goes back to 1999.

"We had one of the most active fire seasons we’ve ever had because we had a very warm and dry summer. The period from June to August 2017 was the hottest and driest June to August period that we had on record," says DNRC Fire Information Officer Angela Wells.

Wells says it was also the third largest wildfire season in Montana’s history. 1.26 million acres have burned, and only the summer of 2012 and the Great Burn of 1910 were bigger.

Climatologists say these kind of fire seasons may be a vision of the state’s future due to climate change. And if that’s the case, Wells says Montanans need to prepare.

"How do you have a strategy in place to deal with air quality impacts? Many homes in Missoula aren’t air conditioned, and so when the recommendation is that you stay inside and keep all your windows shut, that’s not a practical reality for most of the people living in this area," Wells says.

She says people should think about installing HEPA filters and, if they live within an urban wildland interface, thinning the forest near their homes.

Some Republicans, including Congressman Greg Gianforte and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, say big parts of public forests should be thinned in order to ease fires.

Wells says thinning forests near a community can help.

"But we need to prepare to continue to have fire; and thinning and managing forests is not a panacea and it’s not going to solve the problem,” she says.

The forest management debate has raged for decades, but some think more scrutiny can, and should, be placed on where homes and communities are being built.

Missoula-based wildfire consultant Dick Mangan says there’s an unquenchable demand for home construction in and near wildfire-prone areas.

"I read a report the other day that [said] since 1990, 60 percent of all new home construction has been in what we call the interface."

‘The Interface." That’s shorthand for the wildland-urban interface. These are the very desirable lands and communities adjacent to and surrounded by wildlands that are now so susceptible to fire.

"You look around Missoula, the Bitterroot, Grant Creek, the Rattlesnake, South Hills, the West Slope of the Bitterroot. These are the places where people want to live, Mangan says. "It’s a beautiful environment, but it’s also a fire environment. If they don’t do the right things, they may end up being subject to what we’re seeing this summer and have previous summers, and probably will in future summers."

Mangan, owner of Blackbull Wildfire Services, says state and federal land and fire protection agencies have no say on where homes or subdivisions are constructed. That, he says, is up to, "county commissioners, planning commissions and home builders. Probably the ones that are going to have the greatest leverage in changing the situation are the insurance companies."

Meaning insurance companies pay attention to their bottom lines.

"When the insurance companies lose 100 homes a year, they couldn’t care less. If the insurance companies start losing tens of thousands of homes a year, then all of a sudden it shows up on their screen and they say 'we’re probably not going to include insurance for these people.'" 

Mangan says some insurance companies are now offering wildfire insurance for high-end properties valued at well over $500,000.

"They’ve actually contracted with firefighting engine companies – private companies – to go in and just protect their home. They don’t care about you, they don’t care about me, they care about that three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar place, that million-dollar-place. They actually assign engine crews to go in there and provide structure protection. They’re recognizing that those are big hits that they take."

As wildfire claims more western homes and neighborhoods, Mangan says more insurance companies are starting to give more scrutiny to fire-prone zip codes and resisting demands to provide them coverage.

O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the University of Montana School of Journalism. His first career job out of school was covering the 1995 Montana Legislature. When the session wrapped up, O’Brien was fortunate enough to land a full-time position at the station as a general assignment reporter. Feel free to drop him a line at
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