Every night smoke rolls into Seeley Lake, Montana, like a ghostly flood tide. A wildfire on the ridge above the valley town has blazed since July. The smoke descends on a wave of chilled night air and settles.
“It’s been described to me in apocalyptic terms,” said Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department. “Visibility has been down to less than a block.” On Wednesday, Seeley Lake set a record for its worst air quality ever recorded, at 18 times the particle pollution limit deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. The air was so bad that, for five hours, the air monitor in Seeley Lake could not measure the particle concentration - it was above the device’s limit.
This fire season, wildfires like the one above Seeley Lake have burned through nine states: California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Through early Friday, there have been 47,705 wildfires reported since the start of the year, slightly below the 10-year-average for this point in the season, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center, which oversees the state and federal response.
But many of the fires quickly grew in size, putting the United States on pace to exceed the average acreage burned annually over the past 10 years. Fires nationwide have consumed 8,036,858 acres - about 12,550 square miles, larger than the size of Maryland - since Jan. 1. In an average year, 5,516,000 acres would have burned through this point of the fire season, according to agency statistics.
Many of the large fires this year have been concentrated in the northern Rocky and Cascade mountain regions, two areas that are experiencing their worst fire seasons in years.
Twenty fires have started in Montana’s Glacier National Park, said Mike Johnson, a fire information officer at the park. “Eighteen of those we were able to get under initial attack,” he said. The other two, the Adair Peak fire and the Sprague fire, withstood 143,600 gallons of water poured from helicopters. The fires have been blazing since a lightning storm on Aug. 10.
Smoke and low visibility has grounded the helicopters, Johnson said. A predicted low pressure system should blow some of the smoke clear in the next few days. This will aid firefighters, but will also invigorate the wildfires choking beneath the cloud. Meanwhile, the Sprague fire recently claimed a century-old historic chalet. The park itself remains open, Johnson said, though western sections, including parts of the Going-to-the-Sun Road, are closed.
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On Thursday, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and 11 other Democratic and Republican senators sent a letter to Senate leaders Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to improve the federal response to the fire. The Forest Service, low on money, will have to reallocate up to $300 million from different accounts, the senators warned in the letter. The diverted funds would have been used for protective measures, like stopping emerald ash borer beetles from eating New York trees. Or for curbing future fires.
“Because we haven’t seen fires of this magnitude - I can’t recall ever seeing fires of this magnitude - we have got to use this moment,” Wyden said, speaking Friday at the Multnomah County Emergency Operation Command at Troutdale Police Station in Oregon. Wyden and the other senators have asked Congress to provide sufficient funds to the Forest Service, so the agency can react to both suppress and prevent wildfires.
For much of the West, the year began with an exceptionally wet winter and spring. In arid regions, grasses sprouted up, providing fuel for future fires. And then the season changed - harshly.
“We went from waterlogged to wilted,” said John Abatzoglou, a climate scientist at the University of Idaho who studies how humans have made wildfire more severe. A stubborn ridge of high pressure hovered above the region all summer, he said, making it very hot and mostly rain-free. Several states set records for heat or dryness: California and Oregon had their warmest July and August temperatures on record. In Montana, July and August were the state’s driest months ever.
“This is the perfect recipe for drying out fuels quickly, making the landscape susceptible to igniting and carrying fire, and very clearly has enabled the busy fire season,” Abatzoglou said.
Fire has seared more than 640,000 acres in Oregon, nearly three times the area that burned last year. Near the state’s Eagle Creek Canyon, teenagers lobbed a smoke bomb into dry brush, sparking a blaze that turned 30 square miles to ash.
In southeast Oregon, the so-called “Chetco Bar” fire in southern Oregon has been burning for nearly two months and has consumed 180,000 acres. The fire, sparked by lightning, forced hundreds of residents from their homes in mid-August but it remains just 5 percent contained.
On Aug. 20, the fire rapidly advanced toward Brookings, a heavily-wooded oceanfront town of 6,000 residents. Shortly before dusk, authorities rushed through the outskirts of town urging residents to immediately leave their homes.
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“It was a pretty scary thing because it was just an hour’s notice, and we had to get out,” said Sue Gold, a local resident and vice-chairwoman of the Curry County Board of Commissioners. “The fire was coming at us so quickly, and we didn’t have the forces to fight the fire.”
Gold, 70, said it was only after authorities rushed in firefighting reinforcements but “only after they realized the whole town was in danger.” Gold returned home three days later. The fire, she said, should “have been taken care of a lot earlier.”
“When it barely started, when it was a quarter acre, they could have taken a couple helicopters in there, dropped water, and that would have been it,” said Gold, noting parts of the area are still under an evacuation order. “A lot of individuals here are very upset, especially the ones who lost their homes.”
More than 1.1 million acres have burned through Montana as the state struggles through its most destructive fire season in at least 20 years. The severity of this year’s fires can be partially traced to the drought in central and northeastern Montana, where lightning and sparks can easily ignite thousands of miles of moisture-starved grassland. Glasgow, in the northeastern part of the state, is experiencing its driest year on record with just 3.72 inches of rain and snow, according to the National Weather Service.
Small-town football games and other athletic events have been canceled in many parts of the state. In Kalispell, this weekend’s sixth annual Montana Dragon Boat isn’t taking place “due to unhealthy air conditions caused by forest fire smoke,” its website announced.
“Unfortunately, we have fallen victim to the ravages of Mother Nature, and the air quality in the area has become too compromised to hold the event,” Diane Medler, director of the Kalispell Convention & Visitor Bureau, said in a statement.
Though officials caution the precise costs will take months to compile, the federal costs of battling the fires this year appear largely in line with past years.
Jessica Gardetto of the National Interagency Fire Center said the U.S. Forest Service has spent about $1.75 billion on fire-suppression efforts this year. The Department of Interior, which includes the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, have spent another $400 million.
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The two agencies spent a combined $2 billion last year and $2.1 billion in 2015, according to federal data.
A combination of climate change and land management have fueled an increase in wildfire activity dating to the 1980s, climate scientists reported in the journal Science in 2006. A decade later, Abatzoglou and his Columbia University colleague A. Park Williams calculated how climate change made more dry fuel available in American west. The increase in fuel “approximately doubled the western U.S. forest fire area beyond that expected from natural climate variability alone” between 1984 and 2015, they wrote.
“Man-made climate change is making things incrementally hotter and allowing for fuels to dry out that much faster,” Abatzoglou said. “We have certainly seen more years favorable to large fire outbreaks - like the one we’re experiencing now - over the past half century.” Add this to a “legacy of fire suppression and fuel accumulation,” and the result is a “perfect storm for big fire seasons.”
The county health department issued a recommendation for residents to leave Seeley Lake, but some residents remain. Many who have stayed are in a lower economic bracket than their summer neighbors who have left lake homes for Missoula, Coefield said. “There are people living in that smoke. There are children, there are babies, there are the elderly. These are people who should not be breathing smoke,” she said.
The smoke delayed the start of school for a week. In that time the building installed filters to scrub the air of particles. The effort to get filters to Seeley Lake spurred a movement to get filters into schools across the state, a call taken up by nonprofits like the American Lung Association and Blue Cross Blue Shield. “It’s amazing now to have all of those nonprofits stepping up,” she said. “ It’s been frantic. It shouldn’t be that hard.”