Seeley Lake smoke

A contract fire firefighter stands outside his truck in downtown Seeley Lake last summer. From early July until mid-September, local businesses that rely on tourist dollars took a hit due to evacuations, lake and trail closures, and air quality concerns.

Montana’s severe fire summer may have cost the state as much as $240 million in lost tourism revenue, according to a new report released by the University of Montana.

Two researchers from the school’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research found that Flathead and Missoula counties were the hardest hit, with more of the travelers surveyed saying they changed plans to visit those areas this summer than any other destinations in Montana.

This summer's fires burned more than 1.2 million acres in the state, with Gov. Steve Bullock eventually declaring a state of emergency.

When more than a million acres burn during the state’s peak travel season, "negative effects should be anticipated,” the report stated.

The report stated that third-quarter estimates for the state indicate more than 5.6 million nonresidents visited Montana, spending a total of $1.7 billion.

The institute took into account data from surveys of out-of-state residents who either shortened or canceled trips to Montana because of the fires. It found that without the widespread smoke and fires, Montana could have seen as many as 6.4 million nonresident visitors. That translates into $240.5 million in lost visitor spending, equal to 6.8 percent of expected annual visitor spending in the state.

The researchers came to their conclusions after collecting data from more than 1,200 out-of-state tourists.

More than 90 percent of the travelers — half of whom reported being in Montana during the summer — said they were aware of the fires. Of those who were in state during the summer, 30 percent said there was no smoke where they visited, and another 30 percent said while there was smoke where they went, it wasn’t bad enough to affect their travel plans substantially.

Just over a third of those surveyed said the smoke hindered their trip.

Seven percent of the travelers surveyed said the smoke caused them to change the part of Montana they visited. Ten percent reported not being able to do the things they wanted, including taking scenic drives, hiking and camping. Seven percent said they shortened their trip because of the smoke and fires, according to the report.

Most of the people who reported changing their travel plans had intended to visit Flathead and Missoula counties. Gallatin County was the more commonly chosen new destination for those who decided to change plans, and the report said the northwest corner of the state, including Glacier National Park, was hardest hit by tourists choosing to go elsewhere.

The report said that of the travelers surveyed who did not come to the state during the summer, 9 percent canceled planned trips because of the smoke and fires.

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Law and Justice Reporter

Crime reporter for the Missoulian.