Gov. Greg Gianforte received a briefing from state fire management officials Tuesday as several large blazes raged across the state, albeit slowed somewhat by increased humidity and a series of rainstorms.
There are 24 large fires burning in the state as of the morning of August 3. Some 260,000 acres — more than half of the 482,000 acres that have burned throughout Montana since January — have burned since last Monday alone, according to a readout of Gianforte’s briefing from his office. And in the last week, the state has recorded 159 new fire starts.
Almost $20 million of around $105 million available has been spent on fire prevention out of the state’s fire fund since the beginning of the fiscal year on July 1. In a White House meeting with western governors on July 30, Gianforte told President Joe Biden that the state had spent $13 million since July 1 — meaning that Montana has spent more than $6 million out of the fire fund in the last few days.
And so far this year, approximately 38 residences have been lost to fire, with around 600 people currently displaced due to evacuation orders from nine fires. More than 1,000 structures across the state are threatened by the two dozen fires.
The governor announced following the briefing that he’s committing additional National Guard troops to help fight fires. Currently, there are 84 soldiers assisting, and Gianforte’s office said that six additional hand crews will be working firelines across the state by this weekend.
The largest fire in Montana is the PF fire, formerly known as the Poverty Flats fire, in Big Horn County near Hardin. It’s burned more than 65,000 acres of grass, sage and timber, though it’s around 80 percent contained as of August 3. The state’s top-priority fire, however, is a more active threat: the roughly 1,500-acre Boulder 2700 Fire on Flathead Lake eight miles east of Polson.
The fire was first detected in the Mission Mountains on July 31. An initial evacuation order was issued but later lifted, and fire teams had mostly contained the fire to the south by Saturday evening, Tony Harwood, a fire planner with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said at a community meeting about the fire at a gym in Polson Monday night.
But then, as has been the case with several of the destructive fires in the state this year, the winds changed. Sustained 30 mile-per-hour winds funneled the fire from the ridgetops downslope to the lakefront overnight, Harwood said. Around 2 a.m., temperatures were in the low 90s.
“We could tell we were in trouble,” said Rob Swaney, a fire management officer with the CSKT, at the Monday community meeting.
By the next day, Lake County estimated at least 15 to 20 structures had burned. On Monday, the Northern Rockies Coordination Center reported that 25 structures had been destroyed, and around 250 were threatened by fire activity. Lake County Emergency Management Coordinator Mark Clary told the Daily Montanan on Tuesday that an updated count was underway.
At noon Tuesday, those who live on Finley Point south of Mahood Lane were allowed to return to their properties. The Lake County Sheriff’s Office instructed those who qualify to meet deputies at Mile Marker 2 on Highway 35 with proof of residence in order to receive a pass to go to their homes. The area remains under an evacuation warning, and those on the point north of Mahood Lane must stay evacuated.
The fire also damaged power and road infrastructure in the area, leaving many in areas like Finley Point without power, even as evacuations were underway and as some returned Tuesday. Mission Valley Power has worked to restore service to some residents, but fire officials said Tuesday to expect some continued outages.
Several area residents at the meeting expressed frustration with a slow and spotty rollout of fire and evacuation information — especially given the fact that initial orders were lifted by Saturday evening only to be reinstated late at night.
One Finley Point resident, 24-year-old Andrew Salter, only moved to the area from Missoula in May, and was welcomed by a severe fire season. He told the Daily Montanan he never received a call or pre-evacuation notice, and was sleeping Saturday night when the power at his home went out, only noticing when the air conditioning shut off. He called the power company, which told him the fire had jumped the highway and was heading toward the point.
By 2:15 Sunday morning, people were evacuating off the point, he said. Salter only learned about the mandatory evacuation through Facebook, he added. Salter returned to his home Tuesday afternoon to find little damage and the power restored, though smoke and ash filled the air, he said.
Harwood said at the meeting Monday that the fire’s rapid progression was enabled by high temperatures, warm winds and a high load of dry fuels, trends that hold true for large fires across the state.
“This is the most critical drought and fire potential conditions that we’ve had in several decades,” he said.
Fire managers said Tuesday that they didn’t expect the fire to grow much due to cool temperatures and high humidity. However, warmer and drier conditions are likely to hit within the coming days, they said.
“If it gets warm and dry again, this fire could still move,” incident commander Rick Connell said Monday.
With the possibility of increased fire activity on the horizon, Salter said he hopes to see clearer lines of communication.
“I know it happens very fast, but only some people were given calls about the fire,” he said. “Not everybody knew. Now going forward, it’s getting dry again, if the wind starts picking up, we would like a better means of letting people know.”