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Montana is burning: Wildfires in Montana have burned 1 million acres, cost $300 million overall

Firefighters from mop up a small grass fire in Montana on Saturday, Sept. 2. (Casey Page / The Billings Gazette) 1 / 2
A child watches the Lolo Peak fire from the back of her grandfather's truck in August while parked on a ridge overlooking Lolo and the Bitterroot Valley from the Miller Creek area. (Kurt Wilson / The Missoulian)2 / 2

While Houston and part of Texas is overflowing with water and flooding, hundreds of thousands of acres in western Montana are engulfed by wildfires.

More than 30 large wildfires were burning in the state as of Thursday afternoon, causing "major concern," said Angela Wells, fire information officer for the Montana Department of Natural Resources. A large wildfire is any fire over 100 acres.

Over the past three months, fires in Montana have burned more than 1 million acres, with an estimated 700,000 acres currently burning. Wells said the fires, which are using local, state and federal resources to fight, have cost more than $300 million in total. Montana had $35 million in its fire suppression fund this year.

"Right now Montana is experiencing the most severe fire season in its history," she said. "We've had unprecedented warm and dry conditions. In fact, June to August was the warmest, driest period on record."

Wells said fires burning across the rest of the West in California, Oregon and Washington means a "contain and control strategy" for most of the large fires is "not realistic" at this point. Firefighters are instead focused on protecting homes and communities from the blazes. Two people have been killed and numerous homes and other structures have been destroyed in the fires. Many people have also been evacuated from their homes.

"The top priority is maintaining public and firefighter safety," Wells said. "Fire crews are working one of the longest fire seasons that we've ever seen and every day their level of exposure goes up. They're tired, they've been working long hours for several months now. We are not taking any risks with firefighter safety. We are not going to put them in situations of trying to control fires where we have a very low probability of success."

The largest fire so far this year was the Lodgepole Complex fire, which burned more than 270,000 acres and destroyed 16 homes in eastern Montana. The Lolo Peak fire, which is burning southwest of Missoula, was nearly 49,000 acres as of Thursday afternoon, and the Rice Ridge Fire northeast of Seeley Lake was at 120,000 acres.

It may not get better. Wells said the typical period of wet weather at the end of August and into September has not occurred and may not occur until mid-October.

If you are looking at visiting Montana for hunting or fishing in the near future, Wells said state officials encourage people to make sure their tires are in good condition and respect the fire restrictions in place: no open flames or charcoal grills.

Effects on ND

Some North Dakotans may have experienced an extra smoky morning when they stepped outside on Sunday, Sept. 3, said Chuck Hyatt of the North Dakota Department of Health.

Hyatt said the main pollutant that can affect air quality during fire episodes is particulate matter, which are "real fine solid and liquid droplets in the air" that can affect people's health if it is breathed in.

"We are keeping track of the fires," Hyatt said. "It's pretty spectacular up in the sky when you see the haze. Some of the sunsets are really something. But fortunately for the most part, what with the wildfire smoke has been staying high up in there air, it hasn't been coming down to ground level. So it's not directly impacting people on the ground."

Though he said there was an elevated level of particulate level on Sunday that affected air quality in parts of the state. He said the EPA air quality index reached the red in the state, which indicates an unhealthy level of pollution in the air. That only lasted for a few hours.

"Right now, levels seem to be good again," he said. "... We've been pretty fortunate that it has stayed mostly higher up in the atmosphere."

For more information about how wildfires can affect air quality go to

www.ndhealth.gov/AQ/Wildfire.aspx.

Where to donate

Local residents are also focusing efforts to help their neighbors. Aloha Tan will collect donations at the salon until Sept. 13, when a customer will be taking the items to Montana. Aloha Tan is located at 12 First St. W. in Dickinson and is open seven days a week: from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays. A donation box has been set up at the Belfield City Hall and Belfield Police Department. Both groups are collecting nonperishable items such as protein bars, MREs, toiletries, blankets and other items. For a complete list, check out Aloha Tan's Facebook page.

Several relief organizations in Montana are accepting donations to help those who are displaced by the fires and smoke.

The Missoula United Way has set up funds for affected by the Lolo Peak fire and the Seeley Lake/Rice Ridge fire. For any questions call 406-549-6104.

The Red Cross of Montana has also opened several shelters in the western part of the state. Donations can be made at www.redcross.org/local/montana. People can also mail donations to 1300 28th Street South Great Falls, Mont. 59405 and put 'Montana disaster relief in the memo.'

For more ways to learn how to help go to: " target="_blank">mtpr.org/post/how-donate-montanans-affected-wildfires?fref=gc&dti=212167328932219.

Sydney Mook

Sydney Mook started working as the multimedia editor for The Press in January 2016.  She graduated from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor's degree in journalism and political science in three and half years in December 2015. While at the USD, she worked for the campus newspaper, The Volante, as well as the television news show, Coyote News. She also interned at South Dakota Public Broadcasting and spent the summer before her senior year interning in Fort Knox for the ROTC Cadet Summer Training program. In her spare time, Sydney enjoys cheering on the New York Yankees and the Kentucky Wildcats, as well as playing golf. If you've got an idea for a video be sure to give her a call!

(701) 456-1207
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