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Wildland firefighters

chat with Deep Creek landowners July 21 as the Cabin Gulch fire burns in the background.

Montana’s skies stayed smoky for much of the summer as wildfires across the West taxed fire crews to their limits.

A dry winter and warm spring sent much of the winter snowpack downstream earlier than normal, setting the stage for a long fire season. While Montana fared better in terms of burned acreage and damage than other states where hundreds of thousands of acres burned, torching houses and evacuating towns, crews were kept busy responding to Montana blazes from May to November.

Wildfire season got underway early in the Helena area when on May 4 a train ignited about 50 acres along Austin Road northwest of town. Firefighters were able to get a handle on the fire before it threatened any homes, but officials warned that conditions could make for a serious fire season.

Cooler and wetter weather followed, and it wasn’t until July 20 that a hayfield west of Helena ignited. The RV Ranch fire burned more than 100 acres before containment and triggered the evacuation of Colorado Gulch as officials feared it could quickly spread towards area homes.

It was only a day later that the Cabin Gulch fire sent a massive plume of smoke above Townsend, triggering evacuations in Deep Creek Canyon. The fire is a suspected arson, and Robert Alexander Norman was arrested in Park County the following day on suspicion of starting it.

As residents in Deep Creek evacuated on July 21, a lightning-started fire in Colorado Gulch triggered evacuations for the second time in two days, damaging a garage before crews quickly contained it.

August brought more blazes to western Montana.

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On Aug. 14, the 2,600-acre Sucker Creek fire near Lincoln brought evacuations in the Copper Creek area while the 10,000-acre Eustis fire near Three Forks quickly torched through open country.

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As available firefighters ran thin with blazes in Washington, California and Idaho, on Aug. 16, Gov. Steve Bullock declared a fire emergency, which allowed the National Guard to mobilize in fire support.

Wildfires including in Glacier National Park and several blazes along the Rocky Mountain Front continued to cause evacuations and area closures well into September.

Fire season seemed all but over when the Sheep Mountain fire, which had been smoldering in the Bob Marshall Wilderness for weeks, flared up in late September. It quickly grew to about 2,200 acres and forced the evacuation of the K Bar L Ranch near Gibson Reservoir.

Area closures remained in effect into the general big game season, with some trails reopening on Oct. 22 to allow access to the wilderness but several area closures lasting into November.

“I would love to say that we will never face a year like this recognizing that we may well,” Bullock said in August as firefighting resources dwindled. “We need to be taking the steps to ensure firefighters have the resources they need.”

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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