2017 fire season No. 1; produced largest fire in state’s historyNews Type: State Source: Great Falls Tribune
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Montana is in the midst of a snowy winter but here’s a reminder of summer: The state’s 2017 fire season was No. 1 in terms of acres burned, and probably the largest in more than 100 years.
Previously, the state’s No. 1 fire season was 2012, when 1.2 million acres burned, said Mike Richmond, a meteorologist with the Northern Rockies Coordination Center’s Predictive Services.
In 2017, a total of 1.4 million acres burned in Montana, surpassing 2012 and making it No. 1, Richmond said.
Totals through November had shown 2017 as the second largest fire season, behind
As a result of more accurate mapping and surveying, figures for acreage burned were revised in December making 2017 the state’s most severe fire season, Richmond said.
“It’s likely this is the biggest since 1910,” Richmond said of the 2017 fire season.
The Great Fire of 1910 burned an estimated 3 million acres in northeast Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana, killing 86 people, most of them firefighters.
More acreage probably burned that year in Montana compared to 2017, but accurate records aren’t available, Richmond said.
The 2017 fire season probably also surpassed 1988, another benchmark fire year for the state, Richmond said.
In 1988, fires scorched 1.2 to 1.4 million acres. However, not all of the recorded acreage was in Montana as land burned through parts of Yellowstone in Wyoming.
The Missoula-based NRCC coordinates the mobilization of resources for wildland fires in the Northern Rockies and also provides intelligence and predictive services for wildland firefighters.
“The rapid onset was what was most unusual,” Richmond said of the record-setting 2017 fire season.
Up through mid-June, precipitation was healthy west of the Continental Divide, then a flash drought hit.
In eastern Montana, drought was pronounced beginning in April.
“When you add those things up together, that’s why this occurred,” Richmond said.
This was also the largest fire season for the region of northern Idaho, Montana, Yellowstone National Park and North Dakota.
A total of 1.6 million acres burned in the region, eclipsing the 2012 total of 1.5 million acres, with fires in Montana accounting for 1.4 million acres of that total.
In 2017, 3,900 fires were sparked in the region, including 2,420 in Montana.
“It’s a little lower than you might expect because a lot of the fires were big, especially the Lodgepole Complex,” Richmond said.
The 270,000-acre Lodgepole Complex, 52 miles northwest of Jordan in eastern Montana, destroyed sixteen homes, 120 power poles and a significant amount of fencing and haystacks.
Prior to the Lodgepole Complex, the state’s largest fire was the Canyon Creek fire, which burned 247,000 acres in three national forests in 1988.
Canyon Creek started near Canyon Creek in the Scapegoat Wilderness west of the Continental Divide and moved east destroying six cabins, 100 cattle, 40,000 acres of pasture, 200 miles of fence and 1,500 tons of hay before stopping 5 miles short of Augusta on the Rocky Mountain Front.
The Rice Ridge fire, the state’s second largest fire in 2017, burned 160,000 acres.
The state’s firefighting bill was $86 million, said Sue Clark, acting Forestry Division administrator for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
That’s the state’s biggest firefighting bill since 2008, Clark said.
However, the state is anticipating being reimbursed $16 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in fire management assistant grants due to the extent of the fires and the threat to life and property, leaving a net cost to the state of $70 million, she said.
Adequate funding is available in the Fire Suppression Fund to cover the anticipated costs from the fire season but the 2017 bills will take most of it, Clark said.
When the state intervenes in a fire on federal land, it bills federal partners, and vice versa, Clark said.
The state continues to process inter-agency billing transactions from 2017, she said.
“It takes a while to get through that process especially following such a catastrophic year,” Clark said.
The most accurate records for fire acreage begin in 1994, Richmond said.
Before then, dating to the 1970s, records are not as accurate. That’s a function of the technology that was available at the time, Richmond said.