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Sliderock. Moose Peak. Little Hogback. They could have been rock bands.

Instead they are among the many bones of a summer of fire and smoke in Montana that will take a long time to process.

Some 600,000 acres west of the Continental Divide have been touched or torched by fire since June, more than half of them on the Lolo National Forest.

Roughly 75 buildings burned down, including at least a dozen homes or cabins. The historic dormitory at Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park was gutted on the last day of August, a day after Lake McDonald Lodge was shut down for the season for the smoke from the guilty Sprague fire.

One horrific early September evening in West Kootenai, west of Eureka, saw 10 homes and 30 outbuildings go up in flame.

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.

Why, after 10 inches of rain in the first six months, did we get one of the fieriest seasons in memory?

We understood in western Montana how those huge, destructive fires in drought-stricken central and eastern Montana occurred.

Word came around the Fourth of July that the historic Little Rockies town of Zortman, then Landusky, were threatened by the July fire.

Then came a menace of national proportions, the Lodgepole Complex of fires that tore through more than 270,000 acres of rangeland — an area larger than two Flathead Lakes — along the Musselshell River and Highway 200. Sixteen houses and cabins, uncounted livestock, some 120 power poles and miles of fences were destroyed in the first three weeks of July.

But here in the mountains? In these wet woods and valleys? Western Montana was ready to settle into our summer, our rivers, lakes, backcountry trails and campgrounds.

“I live in Deer Lodge, and I’m seeing water in places I’d never seen it before,” said John Thompson, incident commander for the Eastern Montana Type 2 team. “All the ranchers that flood-irrigate are trying to give neighbors their water. The fields are just flooded.”

Until June 13, that is.

“I’m pretty convinced that was the day they shut the faucet off,” Thompson said.

The sun bore down, day after blazing day. Temperatures in the 90s were the norm. Humidity levels dropped to percentages in the teens or less. Burning restrictions were imposed, followed by hundreds of road and trail closures.

It wasn’t a particularly electric summer. But dry as it was, what few thunderstorms there were spewed lightning that, when it touched ground, almost invariably started something. The most destructive ones hit in succession in mid-July.

The Sliderock and Little Hogback fires, high in the mountains east of Rock Creek in Granite County, were spotted July 13. The Meyers fire, higher up the drainage, and the Liberty fire in the Jocko River headwaters on the Flathead Indian Reservation, were reported the next day. So too were the Park Creek and Arrastra fires near Lincoln.

From those starts through first sightings of the West Fork and Moose Peak fires in Lincoln and Sanders County on Aug. 30, roughly two dozen fires west of the Divide were significant enough to make the national Inciweb incident report. None is believed to have been human-caused.


More than 1,200 men and women were working the Lolo Peak fire at one point in late August. Thousands more labored elsewhere in smoke and flames and ever-changing flying conditions trying to tame Montana fires through the summer and, even now, into early autumn.

Tragically, two firefighters didn’t make it. Trenton Johnson and Brent Witham never knew each other and their backgrounds could hardly be more different. But they’ll forever be linked.

Johnson, 19, died after a burning snag fell on him north of Seeley Lake on July 19, a Wednesday. Exactly two weeks later, on Aug. 2, the 29-year-old Witham was struck and killed by a falling tree while working the Lolo Peak fire in the McClain Creek area between Florence and Lolo.

Johnson, a Montana State University student from Missoula who played on four state championship lacrosse teams for Hellgate High, was on just his second fire for a private Oregon-based contract company.

Witham, from Mentone, California, was a six-year Forest Service veteran and a member of a California Hotshot crew based out of the San Bernardino National Forest since 2015.

It was the first time in 16 years that Montana had seen multiple wildland firefighters deaths in the same season. Governors of each man's home state ordered flags be flown at half staff.


Where there’s fire ...

By Aug. 10, a Thursday, the smoke that choked the town of Seeley Lake from the Rice Ridge fire had been awful for weeks.

That morning it topped out. An air monitor near the elementary school registered pollution levels an astounding 38 times above what the World Health Organization deems safe. For the first time in its history, the Missoula-City County Health Department recommended the whole town leave to find clearer skies.

“This is a dangerous level of smoke for any living thing,” air quality specialist Sarah Coefield said. “Nobody should be breathing smoke this thick.”

Soon, virtually no one in western Montana from the Bitterroot to the Kootenai could escape the onerous, hapless, helpless feeling of the smoke cocoon. Those who tried by heading for the West Coast ran into the same conditions, or worse. Those who chased the Aug. 21 solar eclipse south did find respite in Beaverhead County and eastern Idaho.

Coefield, a self-proclaimed “smoke nerd,” became a celebrity of sorts with her snappy twice-daily air quality updates.

"Oregon and California are coming for us," she warned one August day, reflecting the fact that all smoke was not our own.

Wildfires in Washington and British Columbia also contributed to the general malaise that Coefield referred to at one point as “a hideous brown spiral of misery and despair.”

Whether or not fire licked at our doorsteps, the smoke made the fire season personal, and dangerous. Red Cross evacuation shelters sprang up and towns from Rexford to Condon to Philipsburg to Darby opened doors to thousands of temporary evacuees, almost certainly a record number. Community partnerships arose to provide air purifiers for classrooms when school started.

“As with most mountain valley communities, Missoula County’s most worrisome and prevalent air pollutant is the fine particulate in wood smoke, so tiny it can enter your bloodstream when you breathe it in. It’s a cumulative pollutant: the more you’re in it, the worse it is for you,” Coefield wrote in a Sept. 15 guest column for the Washington Post.


The fires, christened in arbitrary fashion, became household names. Sunrise and Burdette in Mineral County. The Sapphire Complex. Sprague and Adair Peak in Glacier National Park.

Rice Ridge, on one end of Missoula County, sent most of the town of Seeley Lake scrambling for safety in late August and gobbled up more than 160,000 acres — a third of them in one terrible run to the east on Labor Day Sunday.

The Lolo Peak fire, on its way to burning 54,000 acres on the other end of Missoula County and in northern Ravalli County, provided a spectacular line of fire as it burst over the ridge above the Bitterroot Valley in mid-August. In all, more than 1,100 homes along Highway 93 and Lolo Creek were evacuated at one time or another. That’s believed to be a record number for one natural disaster.

The worst days came on that Labor Day weekend, as red-flag warning winds whipped multiple fires into a frenzy.

Saturday, Sept. 2, was the night the Caribou fire across Lake Koocanusa from Eureka reared its head and devoured 10 or 11 homes in a scary 4½-mile run. One belonged to Andy Yoder and family, who are part of the West Kootenai Amish community, the oldest in Montana.

Yoder later described how, as the roaring fire closed in, he loaded his wife and children into a buggy and pointed the horse down the road. He and his brother followed, pulling a trailer filled with some of the family’s belongings. They returned days later to a scene of almost unbelievable destruction.

At about the same time that evening, rapid wind shifts threw spot fires across lines on the Liberty fire in the South Fork of the Jocko River. Sixteen firefighters from a hand crew and engine were caught between the main fire and the spot fires. All made it out safely, most to a designated safety zone in a meadow. Three tried to escape down to a road where engines were parked but were surrounded by heavy smoke and fire.

Initial reports indicated the three were starting to deploy their fire shelters when the wind suddenly shifted, clearing the air long enough for them to find an escape route and make it to safety.

Those same winds blew the Lolo Peak fire down again toward the Bitterroot Valley, where the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office implemented evacuation orders for 200 homes northwest of Florence on Sunday morning.

“Nothing, absolutely nothing, about the conditions out there are working in our favor today,” fire information officer Larry Bickel said.

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.

From late June until then, Bickel’s words pretty much summed up a summer of fire that won't be forgotten.

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian