DAYTON — For nearly a week, a thick wall of smoke to the south of the Flathead Valley has provided an ominous backdrop to an otherwise beautiful stretch of weather in one of the most beautiful parts of the state. The Elmo Fire, which started not far from Flathead Lake on July 29, has burned more than 20,000 acres, but thus far hasn’t choked the nearby valleys with smoke as in past summers.
But the prominent plume that has erupted most afternoons this week is a stark reminder of the danger wildland fire poses to one of the fastest-growing areas in Montana. For years, many of the wildfires in this part of the state have occurred in more rural, unpopulated areas, and rarely destroyed homes. But that is changing. In 2017, the Caribou Fire near the tiny community of West Kootenai, not far from the Canadian border, destroyed 40 structures, including 10 homes. In 2018, a number of historic and privately owned cabins were taken out by the Howe Ridge Fire on the shores of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park. And now fires have destroyed primary residences near the shores of Flathead Lake two summers in a row. The Elmo Fire started just two days short of the first anniversary of the start of the Boulder 2700 Fire, directly across Flathead Lake, that destroyed 14 homes in 2021.
As of Wednesday, the Elmo Fire had destroyed eight buildings, including four homes. About 150 homes have been evacuated in the area around Lake Mary Ronan and others are under a pre-evacuation warning near Dayton.
These destructive fires come as northwest Montana’s population continues to grow, especially since 2020. That migration has not only meant more building in Whitefish, Columbia Falls and Kalispell, but also more people living in rural areas beyond city limits, an area categorized as wildland urban interface. The wildland urban interface is “any location where a fire can readily spread from vegetation (wildland fuels) to manmade structures (urban fuels).” It is generally measured as a 1.5-mile zone around any area with structures. Fire officials say the size of the wildland urban interface has grown dramatically in the last few years across the American West, and especially in places like Flathead County. According to a 2021 Community Wildfire Protection Plan for Flathead County, the wildland urban interface accounted for 1,859 square miles, or 37% of the county.
“It’s not if, it’s when we’ll have a similar situation here,” said Mike West of this week’s blaze near Dayton. “But there are things homeowners can do to help set firefighters up for success.”
West is the assistant fire management officer of fuels for the Flathead National Forest’s Tally Lake Ranger District. He is also part of FireSafe Flathead, a group that educates residents about how they can create fire-resilient landscapes around their property. The group was first organized in 2016 and is led by representatives of federal, state and local agencies.
West grew up in northwest Montana and has been working on the Tally Lake Ranger District, which includes much of the west side of the Flathead Valley, since 2009. He said the amount of development in the area in the last decade has been staggering — “I used to hear birds in the forest, but now I usually hear excavators,” he said — and that has him worried. Along with education, the group also provides funding to landowners who want to make their property fire-resilient by thinning and clearing fuels. Such treatments can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars per acre to more than $1,000, depending on the geography and scale of the project.
Ali Ulwelling is another member of FireSafe Flathead and a forestry assistance specialist for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. She said FireSafe Flathead’s work is is especially important as new people move into the area who may not be familiar with the region’s landscape and history with fire.
“We help people understand that they live in a fire-adaptive landscape,” she said. “That we’re choosing to live in places that burn and have always burned.”
Ulwelling said it’s important that people look at their property with an eye toward reducing burnable fuels. While thinning and clearing brush is an obvious strategy, she said, other helpful actions can include cleaning gutters and installing a barrier of non-flammable material around structures. Those types of spaces around a home can also give firefighters a better chance to protect it if a blaze does encroach.
Ben Devall, the fire chief of Big Mountain Fire and Rescue, said creating defensible spaces is especially important because in some instances firefighters might not be able to protect every property. His department has a half-dozen full-time firefighters to protect hundreds of properties in the area in and around Whitefish Mountain Resort.
“If people are coming from an urban area to a rural area, they’ve got to be ready for the fact that help or a fire truck isn’t just a phone call away all the time, it could take time for us to get there,” he said. “I think some people are unaware of that reality.”
But as wildfires become bigger and the fire season grows longer across the West, concerns about structure losses could go beyond those in the wildland urban interface, Ulwelling said, pointing to devastating fires in Paradise, California in 2018 and Boulder, Colorado in 2021, each of which destroyed thousands of structures.
“We’ve seen what happens when high winds push a fire into a community in recent years,” she said.