Not since the terrible summer of 1910 has so much of Montana been scorched in a single year.
Statewide, more than 1.1 million acres burned in fire season 2012, according to figures from the Northern Rockies Coordination Center. More than half of the 2,116 fires were human-caused, said Derek Yeager, fire management officer for the Southern Montana Land Office in Billings. But the largest and most destructive were sparked by lightning.
The 10-year average — 2002 through 2011 — is 1,648 wildfires a year burning 338,252 acres. The last fire season that came close to this one was 2006, when a little more than 1 million acres went up in flames. Fires in and around Yellowstone Park in 1988 burned 1.6 million acres, but it was not all in Montana.
Suppression of 2012 fires cost taxpayers about $113 million. The figure includes about $50 million from state coffers.
It does not include millions of dollars' worth of public and private property destroyed or damaged during a season that began early and stayed late. Four hundred and sixty-two structures, including more than 80 residences, were reduced to cinders.
“Our records go back roughly to the beginning of the 1900s, and except for 1910, this is the most acreage burned in single season,” Yeager said Tuesday.
In 1910, fire covered 3 million acres in Western Montana and Idaho and resulted in the deaths of at least 85 people.
Remarkably, with fire so widespread this year, no deaths or major casualties were reported, Yeager said.
“We’re very proud of that,” he said. “One way to look at it, rather than as viewing it as the worst fire year, is that our safety record was pretty commendable. And it gives us a chance to review what worked and what we could do better if it happens again.”
Yeager is worried that fire years like 2012 could be a theme of Montana’s future as increasing numbers of people move into the urban-rural interface, especially in Eastern Montana.
“Wildfire used to be something you could see from the road or read about in the newspaper,” he said. “Now they are getting close to home.”
Yeager was fire boss on one of the earliest and most destructive of Montana’s major incidents last summer — the Dahl fire in Musselshell County. It consumed 223 structures, including 73 residences, and cost $3.5 million to fight. The Dahl fire left a 22,000-acre scar through the timbered Bull Mountains north of Billings. Almost all of it was on private land.
At the same time near the end of June, the Ash Creek fire exploded in Rosebud and Powder River counties, leaving a moonscape of 249,562 acres — making it the largest fire of the year. It took 39 structures, including many homes on or near the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Before it was controlled, it cost $7.5 million to suppress.
In August, another group of fires in the southeastern part of the state, called the Rosebud complex, ate 171,444 acres and 10 structures. It cost $9 million to fight.
“We’re starting to wonder if this is the theme for the future,” Yeager said. “A lot of land in Montana is just not resilient, and it’s not getting any more resistant to fire. We’ve experienced a lot of fires inside older fires. It changes the configuration of the fuel. It seems like every three to five years we have fires in the same place. Part of the long-term discussion is what to do about this.”
Much has been done in the last 10 years to help communities prepare for fire, including agreements with state and federal agencies that give local departments equipment and training, as well as far-reaching mutual-aid pacts.
Information on fire safety has been widely distributed for homeowners and developers. Where homes and subdivisions have been planned with defensible space around structures and where there is more than one way in and out of a property, “We’re seeing the benefit,” he said. “Where it’s not occurring, we have a great deal of concern about communities that are not quite prepared.”
Resources are shared through agreements that bring state, federal and local fire departments when fire ignites. But even with all those resources, firefighters were stretched thin in the 2012 season.
“We’ll always find a way to fight fires,” Yeager said. “But a few times we were short of resources.”
During the season, 21 fires cost more than $1 million each to control. The most expensive was a 10,515-acre fire south of Bozeman. It rang in at $10.6 million.