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Summer of Fire and Smoke

Scenes from Montana's historic wildfire season

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Whether or not fire licked at our doorsteps, the smoke made the fire season personal, and dangerous. Thousands of people from every county in western Montana were forced to leave their homes or at least get ready to flee.
It wasn't a particularly electric summer. But there were a few thunderstorms, the earliest some exceptionally destructive ones in mid-July that sparked fires in Rock Creek and the Jocko River headwaters. When lightning did touch ground it almost invariably started something.
The sun bore down day after blazing day, setting the stage for one of the worst fire seasons in memory. High temperatures in the 90s were the norm. Humidity levels dropped to percentages in the teens or less.
Smoke silhouettes a helicopter making bucket drops on the Sunrise fire in Mineral County near the end of July, at that point the top priority fire in the nation.
Sean Winter a CH-47D “Chinook” helicopter pilot sits on a hammock in the back of theaircraft as he waits for the smoke to clear at the Superior landing strip. Days of endless smoke hampered aerial attacks on all the fires.
A converted DC-10 jumbo jet drops a load of retardant on the Rice Ridge fire near Seeley Lake.
Thousands of firefighters from across the nation tried to get a handle on western Montana fires. Although more than 500,000 acres burned, only a dozen homes were lost.
Pallbearers from the U.S. Forest Service load the body of firefighter Brent Witham for transport to California for memorial services. Witham died Aug. 2 when he was struck by a falling tree on the Lolo Peak fire, two weeks after Trenton Johnson, 19, of Missoula died after a burning snag fell on him north of Seeley Lake.
Virtually no one in western Montana could escape the onerous, hapless, helpless feeling of the smoke cocoon. On August 10 the pollution level in the town of Seeley Lake were 38 times what the World Health Organization deemed safe.
The costs of two fires alone are approaching $100 million. As of Thursday, the 54,000-acre Lolo Peak fire had rung up $48.4 million in bills. The Rice Ridge fire, which finally stalled out at 160,000-plus acres, checked in at $47.9 million.
The Lolo Peak fire started July 15 and blew up in mid-August sending hundreds of residents in the Bitterroot Valley packing. In all more than 1,100 homes along Highway 93 and Lolo Creek faced mandatory evacuations.
Bryanna Thompson loads a child's bicycle among other items she was taking from her home near Florence after the evacuation order for the Lolo Peak fire.
Montana Highway patrol officers Sean Finley, left, and and Shawn Smalley stop motorists on Highway 12 after the highway was closed because of spot fires from the Lolo Peak fire.
Exhaustion reads on the face of a firefighter from Noorvik, Alaska, while he and his team were working the primary fire line on the Lolo Peak fire.
Motorists on U.S. Highway 93 South pass through a plume of smoke from the Lolo Peak fire as flames from the fire, and from backfiring operations, pushed toward the valley floor between Lolo and Florence.
Five-year-old Hayden O'Leary watches the Lolo Peak fire from the back of her grandfather's truck.
A heavy-lift Chinook helicopter flies toward a large plume of smoke on the Lolo Peak fire.
At one point in late August more than 1,200 people were working on the Lolo Peak fire.
Montana Governor Steve Bullock declared fire emergencies in July and August deploying the Montana National Guard to help fight fires.
Firefighters walk through the Rice Ridge fire camp shrouded in smoke from the fire burning just east of Seeley Lake.
The most worrisome and prevalent air pollutant in wood smoke is the fine particulate, “so tiny it can enter your bloodstream when you breathe it in,” said Sarah Coefield an air quality specialist for the Missoula County Health Department. “It's a cumulative pollutant; the more you're in it, the worse it is for you.”
Fire camps were finally able to start preparing for rain in mid-September.
The historic P2V retardant bombers worked their last summer of fires for Neptune Aviation of Missoula.
The rains came on Sept. 14 to southwest Montana and up and over the Continental Divide, where a foot or more of snow piled up. Fires to the north and west got drenched a few days later and with that Montana’s summer of fire came to a close.

Photos by

  • Kurt Wilson
  • Tommy Martino
  • Tom Bauer
  • Rebekah Welch

Videos by

  • Derek Minemeyer

Written by

  • Kim Briggeman

Designed by

  • Chase Doak