It was just two years ago I wrote a similar letter summarizing the fire season and thanking all the people in the communities affected by the fires. It is hard to believe I’m doing this again, thinking that 2015 would have been one of those seasons we wouldn’t experience for a while. However, the 2017 fire season set many new records on the Kootenai National Forest. It started with one of the driest summers on record, where we didn’t have any measurable precipitation for over 80 days. This made conditions ripe for the extreme fire activity which we observed, especially when high winds were forecasted.
To date, we have had 75 fires, mostly lightning caused, which burned approximately 85,000 acres. This is almost three times the amount of fire than what we experienced in 2015 and the largest on record for the KNF. The Caribou Fire, which totaled over 24,000 acres, is also the single largest fire recorded on the forest. Across Montana, fires burned up about 605,000 acres. Most of these fires will continue to burn, until a significant rain or snow event. That is why we will leave some closures in place until next spring or until those areas are safe for travel.
Another first for the forest was the unfortunate loss of private structures. The Caribou Fire burned over 10 private residents and 30 outbuildings within the West Kootenai community. This was a very tough loss, not only for the members of the community, but for the first responders and the fire fighters, that did all they could to prevent this from happening. Also, many citizens and other affected communities were inconvenienced through evacuations and pre-evacuation notices, forest closure orders, Stage I and Stage II fire restrictions, and a lot of unpleasant smoke.
Hundreds of firefighters from all over the country participated in the fire effort on the KNF. We had crews from Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Alaska fighting our fires. Also, firefighting equipment, including aerial support and a great deal of local mechanized equipment were a tremendous help in keeping the fires from spreading even more. Four Type II Incident Management Teams and a couple of Type III Teams were brought in to handle the large fire complexes on the forest; they were an invaluable resource and greatly appreciated.
In addition to firefighters and local teams, many KNF employees and retirees helped with fire assignments by filling orders, gathering and shuttling supplies and delivering food to the firefighters. We also worked hand-in-hand with local teams and other partners to coordinate fire information and keep the public informed of the fire situation. We worked with the media, used social media, held public meetings and had fire information boards at strategic spots in the local and affected communities to help spread fire information far and wide.
The Kootenai National Forest would like to thank everyone involved in the fire effort and supporting the fire crews on the ground. It was another display of team effort across both Lincoln and Sanders County where so many individuals and groups stepped up to show their support – our partners, stakeholders, county and city officials, volunteers, local elected officials, media and especially the public for their patience and understanding during this trying fire season. It was very humbling to see all the signs in our communities thanking the fire fighters.
Once again, on behalf of myself and all the employees and staff on the Kootenai National Forest, thank you.
Christopher S. Savage is Kootenai Forest Supervisor.