For all the drama of the Roaring Lion and Copper King wildfires, Montana enjoyed a relatively mild forest fire year in 2016.
State Department of Natural Resources and Conservation fire crews fought 226 fires that burned 25,031 acres of state land this year. The five-year average is 327 fires and 134,000 acres.
“We had a total cost of $17.8 million to DNRC,” said agency fire prevention specialist Crystal Beckman. “The southeast part of Montana kept us on heightened alert most of the season. We shifted a lot of resources there because of severe dry conditions.”
That made Montana something of an anomaly in the United States. Nationwide, the U.S. Forest Service spent about $1.6 billion on firefighting as of October, the end of its fiscal year. So, 2016 ranks as the second-most expensive firefighting year in history, behind 2015’s $1.7 billion.
Despite the national attention, Congress failed to pass a long-awaited Wildfire Disaster Funding bill that would have allowed the Forest Service to tap federal contingency funds the way other agencies pay for response to hurricanes or tornadoes.
Roaring Lion alone cost about $11 million, according to Bitterroot National Forest spokesman Tod McKay. It burned 8,658 acres just west of Hamilton.
“This season was odd,” McKay said. “We had homes burned, tons of people evacuated, and the fires we had were Type 1 (the most complex and actively fought incidents). They were right in the urban interface with lots of people effected, but not a ton in the backcountry.”
The Copper King fire northeast of Thompson Falls threatened homes along Highway 2 before moving into tougher terrain along the Thompson and Little Thompson rivers. It cost at least $24 million after burning 28,511 acres of mixed federal, state and private property.
All that didn’t count the wildfires in Tennessee and North Carolina that kept ground crews busy well into late fall.
“One other unique feature of 2016,” McKay said just before Christmas. “We just brought our last firefighter home from the East Coast last week. Is this season ever going to end?”