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Columbus Fire on I90

Helicopters drop water on the wildfire that burned toward Interstate 90 near Columbus in 2017.

MEG OLIPHANT, Billings Gazette Staff

MISSOULA — Montana may have lost $240.5 million in tourist spending in 2017 due to "severe smoke and fires," according to a study released Tuesday by the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research.

"Visitor spending during 2017 was higher than 2016, but it could have been even more impactful if the smoke conditions had not led people to change, shorten or cancel their plans," said Jeremy Sage, economist and institute associate director, in a statement about the report.

The report notes 12.5 million visitors spent $3.4 billion in travel in Montana, with 5.8 million of them visiting from July through September. Those visiting in the third quarter spent 52 percent of the $3.4 billion, according to the report.

Last summer, more than 1 million acres burned in Montana, affecting Seeley Lake, Glacier National Park, Lincoln and Lolo, among others.

In the Lolo area, though, at least one business remained busy despite, and occasionally because of, the fires. Holly Brummer, with Lolo Peak Brewery, said many out-of-state people visit the brewery, especially because of its location just off U.S. Highway 93.

"It's a big road that a lot of people travel on, and people are all about breweries," Brummer said.

The brewery closed off patio service for a few days because it didn't want its servers to have to work in the hazardous smoke, she said. However, customers who wanted to sit outside could take their beers on the patio, and Brummer said some customers in fact wanted to see the fires.

Seeley Lake was especially hard-hit last summer, and fires put the brakes on tourism spending there. Last fall, Moose Jergesen of Rocky Mountain Adventure Gear told the Missoulian the Rice Ridge fire and others nearby shut down his income from renting boats and gear to tourists.

"I had a stack full of cancellations," Jergesen said in September 2017. "I even offered free delivery to other lakes to keep some business, but people didn't want to breathe the air quality. It was a huge loss."

However, he also said media reports and misinterpretation meant some tourists believed a wider area of the valley was closed than was actually the case.

In 2017, overall visitation to Montana was up 1 percent and spending in the state increased 11 percent, according to the report from the UM institute. Travel groups spent $130.75 per day for a total of some $1.7 billion during the summer months, according to the institute.

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