After a record-setting fire season last year that burned thousands of acres and many homes and outbuildings in southeastern and south-central Montana, this year has been notably quiet thanks to timely rainfall.
“This was a much different fire season,” Bob Harrington, state forester for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, told the Environmental Quality Council on Thursday.
The 120-day fire season last year started in mid-June and continued through September, a season unprecedented in DNRC’s firefighting history, Harrington said.
This year began in much the same manner, with a large fire igniting in mid-May near Philipsburg, but steady rain finally arrived and doused the fire danger across much of the state.
Of those fires that did start on state land, Harrington said, the DNRC had about a 97 to 98 percent success rate at halting those fires before they grew beyond 10 acres.
Looking at the numbers, so far this year 271 fires have burned 12,000 acres of state lands.
That compares to a five-year average of 325 fires burning 154,000 acres. The cost to the state of fighting those fires is $15.8 million to date with an expected reimbursement of about $5 million from the federal government.
“That (cost) will probably go up, but not much,”
“We’re glad we had as little fire as we had and that it cost us as little as it did,” said Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, who chairs the EQC.
Looking at the bigger picture that includes all lands, in Montana this year 1,588 fires burned 123,226 acres. In Wyoming, 385 fires have burned 44,673 acres.
Last year, 2,213 fires in Montana burned 1.22 million acres at a cost to the state of $57 million. In Wyoming, 838 fires burned 357,117 acres.
Nationwide, so far this year 37,387 fires have burned 3.97 million acres compared to last year when 67,774 fires burned 9.3 million acres.
Last year’s federal firefighting costs alone totaled $1.9 billion.
Harrington noted that a lot of the lightning-caused fires that ignited this year in the backcountry stayed in the forest and didn’t creep out onto adjacent lands — such as the 12,400-acre Red Shale fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the 11,800-acre Miner Paradise Complex south of Livingston.
Closer to Billings, the Rock Creek fire was kept on Custer National Forest land with a heavy dose of air tanker support.
The 950-acre Rock Creek fire was lucky to get the air support because at one point this summer the demand for equipment and manpower was concentrated on large fires in Sun Valley, Idaho, and in California, limiting resources for other fire starts.
That’s when Harrington asked Gov. Bullock to declare a state of emergency and mobilize the Montana National Guard as well as ask for assistance from Canadian helicopter attack crews to help fight the Lolo Creek Complex burning near Missoula.
The Lolo fire has been measured at 10,900 acres.
“That really helped,” Harrington said.