Tourism-related business in Montana was off to a record start this summer until dozens of wildfires choked the western half of the state in smoke and ash for most of late July, nearly all of August and early September.
That’s when business in several tourism-dependent communities came crashing to a halt as visitors canceled their plans. The town of Seeley Lake was hit as hard as any community with both thick smoke and the temporary closure of the lake for firefighting purposes.
Moose Jergesen of Rocky Mountain Adventure Gear in Seeley Lake is still feeling the effects of the lost summer. He rents kayaks, motorboats and other gear to tourists, and the massive Rice Ridge fire and other wildfires that filled Seeley with hazardous smoke all through August shut down his income.
“July was a record month, but on August 1 when they closed the lake, like a switch everything turned off,” he said. “I had a stack full of cancellations. I even offered free delivery to other lakes to keep some business, but people just didn’t want to breathe the air quality. It was a huge loss.”
Now, the state government is trying to help businesses who lost out on crucial summer business get back on their feet.
On Monday, the Montana Departments of Commerce, Labor and Industry, the Office of Disaster and Emergency Services and Gov. Steve Bullock announced a collaborative effort to provide financial assistance such as grants, loans and business counseling services to communities affected by fire to help minimize the economic loss.
The website, businessrecovery.mt.gov, gives people information on financing available to wood products businesses, small business disaster recovery grant programs and tourism-related emergency marketing grants, among other things. Montanans can call 406-841-2770 for live assistance during regular business hours, and staff will help individuals identify which programs may be the most applicable, based on their specific circumstances. They can also email email@example.com for support.
Jergesen said the business he lost is “non-recoverable” because it’s not like people are going to come back after the fires are gone.
“You have 60 days in the summer to make your money for the year, and to lose 30 of them, it’s going to hurt,” he said. “It’s not just mine, but mine is one of the most affected because it’s an outdoor gear business. But restaurants and grocery stores and all the rest of the businesses were hurting, too. People weren’t going to Seeley Lake.”
Kerry Bertsch, who owns The Lodges on Seeley Lake with her husband Brian Bertsch, estimates she lost half the normal summer business due to the fire.
“Only now is the phone starting to ring again, as far as guests go,” she said. “It had residual effects, just because of the smoke. Mid-September is when it finally started picking back up again. It just started so early and lingered.”
Bertsch said 90 percent of their customers are repeat, longtime visitors, and even they canceled reservations.
“Nobody gutted it out,” she said. “Everyone pushed their reservations to next summer."
The one saving grace for Bertsch and other businesses was that firefighters, security guards and other fire staff still spent money in town.
"We sure are thankful for that. It took the curse off a little bit," she said.
When Seeley Lake was closed because air scoopers were using the surface of the lake to get water for firefighting efforts, Jergesen said many tourists didn’t understand that all the other lakes in the area were still open.
“Part of it was the media,” he said. “They word it as ‘Seeley Lake waters closed’ but that only meant Seeley Lake, the inlet and the outlet. Placid, Salmon, Inez, Alva and all the other lakes were open. The way they worded it, one guy said his wife called Cabella’s and they told her all the waters are closed. And he actually drove up there to see what was going on. Another guy thought the entire highway was closed, but no, it wasn’t closed, they were just doing road construction. Part of it was misinterpretation of what was going on.”
Jergesen said he’s thankful that Forest Service firefighters saved Seeley Lake, but he thinks whoever made the decision not to fight the Rice Ridge fire when it was at 20 acres “needs to be held accountable.” He also thinks more logging needs to happen to reduce the fuels and prevent catastrophic fires.
According to Emilie Saunders, a spokesperson for the Montana Department of Commerce, tourism was bustling in July. The average daily rate received by Montana hotel owners was up 2.7 percent over July 2016, and the total revenue at hotels was up 4.3 percent in the first half of 2017 compared to the first six months of 2016.
That’s even more noteworthy considering that, due to a building boom in many places, there were 1.5 percent more rooms available. The news in August was still good. The total revenue in August for hotel owners was up 8.2 percent over August 2016. Glacier National Park saw a record number of tourists as well. However, the numbers for September are not in yet.
Saunders also reiterated that those numbers are statewide, so it’s hard to get an accurate look at how certain regions within the state were affected by wildfire.
Either way, it was one of the worst fire seasons in state history, as well over 1 million acres burned and the state suffered through a severe drought, meaning no rainstorms wiped out the smoke in Seeley Lake and all over western Montana until mid-September.
Seeley Lake wasn’t the only place where business was affected. For example, much of Rock Creek Road, where several commercial fishing, lodging and restaurant businesses depend on visitors, was closed in late July due to several wildfires. In Glacier National Park, smoke smothered Apgar Village and the Sprague Creek fire forced the evacuation of the Lake McDonald Valley and West Glacier. The town of Lincoln also lost out on summer tourists due to wildfires.
All the state can do now is try to help those businesses that lost customers try to bounce back for next year.
“Montana is strong and resilient,” said Bullock. “The tireless work of firefighters and the generous support of volunteers have protected the safety and livelihood of Montanans across the state. As the work continues, we’re putting our best foot forward to ensure our businesses and communities will fully recover from any challenges they’re facing in the aftermath of what has been a long, difficult and expensive fire season.”