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Fire Season One for the Record Books
State needs new funds for wildfire suppression following multi-million-dollar season
A plane drops fire retardant on the northern side of the West Garceau fire near Garceau Gulch and Irvine Flats on August 16, 2012 northwest of Polson in the Salish Mountains. file photo by lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
Fires continue to burn through November in several states, but Montana’s worst wildfire season in more than 100 years appears to have ended.

This year 2,133 fires have scorched 1.14 million acres statewide, according to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center. It’s the most land consumed in a single year since the infamous Big Burn of 1910, when a firestorm swept across 3 million acres of western Montana, northern Idaho and northeastern Washington.

Before summer ushered in the brunt of fire activity, forecasters were already warning of a severe season ahead. The predictions manifested across the nation, as it became the second worst fire season on record for acreage burned. Fueled by severe drought conditions and the warmest average temperatures on record, more than 14,000 square miles have burned in 2012, including 2,196 residences. Only 2006, when 14,690 square miles burned, was worse.

This year’s high total came despite the lowest number of fires in 10 years, underscoring the message fire managers have been delivering in recent years: climate change, the growth of communities into wildlands and the buildup of flammable vegetation has made managing wildfires more challenging than ever before.

In late August, amid high fire activity and threatening conditions, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer declared a statewide emergency and made supplemental funds available. Most of the destruction occurred on the eastern half of the state where communities are plagued by worsening drought conditions.

Private landowners lost millions of dollars worth of property, including damaged grazing land and crops. Fires destroyed a total of 462 public and private structures, including more than 80 homes.

By and large Northwest Montana missed the brunt of fire season’s wrath and had the lowest amount of activity statewide. The Condon Mountain Fire was the largest in the Flathead National Forest all summer. Sparked in late July by lightning, the blaze grew to 5,500 acres west of the Bob Marshall Wilderness near Condon, forcing trail closures and at one point threatening evacuations. The fire continues to smolder while rehabilitation work is underway.

A majority of the fires across Montana were human-caused. Of the 2,133 blazes, 1,148 were human-caused. Those fires burned 172,708 acres.

Despite the historic fire behavior across the state, there were no fatalities compared to 1910, when 87 people were killed in the Big Burn.

Looking back on the season, Mary Sexton, director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, is praising fire crews for their efforts during the volatile summer, both in Montana and across the nation. State crews continue to cooperate well with federal and tribal agencies and all together the resources this summer kept a difficult situation from worsening, she said.

“We were really quite well prepared,” she said. “I think we have really built up the army, so to speak.”

Sexton said the DNRC in recent years has efficiently increased resources in rural communities, and she expects it to remain that way despite a tight fire budget.

“We have really built our resources so that they are lean and mean,” she said.

For example, 95 percent of the time the state’s initial attack crews successfully suppressed fires before they grew into a larger incident, according to Sexton.

“That tells you really how successful and accurate we are,” she said.

The overall cost to suppress wildfires in Montana this year exceeded $113 million, including $47.4 million in state funds, according to the DNRC. After the large fire season in 2007, the Legislature held a special session and approved a separate $40 million suppression fund that was available for wildland firefighting. An additional $16 million was also available through the governor’s emergency fund. Entering the new fiscal year on July 1 in the heart of fire season, only $4.1 million remained in the suppression fund and was quickly used up. The upcoming Legislature will decide the details of a new suppression fund.

The average annual cost of fire suppression has risen considerably over the last decade. Since 2006, the seven-year overall average cost is $31.08 million, according to the latest budget analysis by the state’s Legislative Fiscal Division. The seven-year-cost for the state is $18.24 million. Since 2006, fires in Montana have cost $217.57 million, including $127.68 million for the state.

As a way to defend against future wildfires and protect rural residents, senators from three Western states are urging the federal government to thin overgrown forests stricken with drought and littered with dead trees from beetle kill.

U.S. Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado; Mike Enzi and John Barrasso of Wyoming; and Tim Johnson and John Thune of South Dakota signed a letter last week to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The letter encourages the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow the timber industry to thin larger acreages of forest near urban areas.

Open burning will be permitted in Flathead and Lake counties until Nov. 30. Burning will be shut down from Dec. 1 through Feb. 28 due to air quality regulations. For more information, visit www.firesafekalispell.com.
 
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Kellyn Brown
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Landslide slowly destroying part of Wyoming resort town http://t.co/ggvVuuJKTG
Dillon Tabish
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Molly Priddy
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Tristan Scott
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