A VLAT, or very large air tanker, drops a load of retardant on a lightening sparked fire south of Helena Thursday evening.

A VLAT, or very large air tanker, drops a load of retardant on the lightning-sparked Holmes Gulch fire south of Helena on Aug. 24. The fire, which prompted evacuations, was quickly knocked down by over 100 firefighting personnel. 

Thom Bridge, thom.bridge@helenair.com

Montana’s 2017 wildfire season seemed unlikely last winter, as western Montana sat buried beneath above-average snowpack.

But as summer came, precipitation all but stopped across the region. Warm temperatures dwindled snow reserves, and by mid-July the earlier-than-average wildfire season was underway. With grasses and trees drying, rounds of lightning storms sparked blazes from mountain forests to prairie draws.

On Aug. 24 a plume of smoke rose just south of Helena in the South Hills. The first sparks of the Holmes Gulch fire were in a place local fire officials have warned about for years, and as winds pushed the blaze up the backside of Mount Ascension and toward city limits, they wondered if their fears would be realized.

The wind shifted and the city was no longer in danger, but the Holmes Gulch fire, while small in size, still triggered evacuations of area homes. The wind shift proved not to be the only fortuitous occurrence, as an air tanker and helicopters sat minutes away and were soon on the scene.

Residents gathered at the Montana City Fire House, many of their faces wrought with concern as they listened intently to fire officials strategize. By the next evening, evacuees returned home as Helena and northern Jefferson County were spared but left with a cautionary tale.

Montana’s 2017 wildfire season was already well underway by the time Holmes Gulch sparked in late August.

North of Lincoln, the Park Creek fire was first spotted the evening of July 14. As days turned into weeks and then months, it moved through snags and combined with the Arrastra Creek fire, totaling about 18,000 acres. The plume inundating Lincoln hampered air quality with prevailing winds often pushing smoke into the Helena Valley.

To the northeast, the Alice Creek fire was not discovered until July 22. It smoldered for weeks as firefighters focused on other blazes, both due to safety concerns and remoteness. Alice Creek would not stay small, and it jumped the ridge and raced to the west. Evacuations were ordered for a small area subdivision until the snow came, finally subduing the nearly 30,000 acre blaze.

Starting July 19, the Lodgepole Complex ran through a quarter million acres of eastern Montana badlands in a matter of days, destroying 16 homes and miles of fencing.

Western Montana’s largest fire was Rice Ridge near Seeley Lake at more than 160,000 acres. Weeks of hazardous air plagued the resort town, which even saw the lake closed for crews to get water for air drops.

The 54,000-acre Lolo Peak fire burned multiple homes as it made runs above the Bitterroot Valley and triggered multiple evacuations.

Lost in the 17,000-acre Sprauge fire was the historic Sperry Chalet, built more than 100 years ago by the Great Northern Railroad and listed as a historic landmark.

Other notable fires included the Meyers fire in the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest, the Sapphire Complex in the Lolo National Forest, the Liberty fire on the Flathead Indian Reservation and the Caribou fire near Eureka.

In all, more than 1.2 million acres burned in Montana in 2017, two firefighters lost their lives, and firefighting costs totaled nearly $400 million.

At the state level, the roughly $75 million price tag, even after receiving federal grants to cover some costs, outspent an already depleted state fire fund by about $45 million.

A study recently released by the University of Montana's Institute for Tourism and Recreational Research estimates the state lost out on $240 million in consumer spending by tourists this year.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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Natural Resources Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter / Assistant Editor for The Independent Record.

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