(CN) — Ray Swan sat on the bumper of his car Friday in Glacier National Park in Montana while his wife and friend packed their belongings.
Heavy smoke from nearby wildfires filled the valley around Lake McDonald as the few tourists who remained were loading their cars and heading out.
“I’m having so much trouble breathing, it’s ridiculous,” said Swan, who has emphysema and COPD. “That’s the only reason we’re leaving now.” He and his wife, Judy, traveled from St. Cloud, Minnesota, to visit Glacier National Park, as the couple has done for the last 18 years.
“Normally it would be completely beautiful this time of year,” he said.
On Sunday, authorities evacuated portions of the western area of the park after the Sprague Creek forest fire blew up. The blaze destroyed Sperry Chalet, one of the park’s storied backcountry chalets, built in the early 1900s for wealthy tourists to stay in comfort in the Montana wilderness.
Montana is having its worst fire season in history, and there’s no end in sight – other than an early snowfall that might help extinguish the blazes.
But while all eyes are on Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey, the West burns. Lightning storms in July sparked dozens of fires that quickly grew out of control.
Montana is not alone. Several states in the West are having one of their worst fire seasons in decades. Ray Swan felt it firsthand. From Oregon to Montana “we were in smoke the whole time,” he said.
The Treasure State leads the West in acres burned, at 980,887 so far. Seeley Lake, a resort town that relies on summer tourism, shut down a month ago as the Rice Ridge fire took off in the nearby Lolo National Forest. That fire has now burned over 122,000 acres.
Western states had wet springs, and the grass that grew high dried out. Forests at higher elevations are dry as well, leaving plenty of fuel for wildfires according to Bryan Henry, a manager at the National Interagency Fire Center.
Summer lightning storms have dumped less rain than usual, and weather conditions kept the humidity low – creating a natural tinderbox in many states.
“It was kind of a bad combination of things,” Henry said.
By Thursday, more than 76 large fires were burning in nine Western states including 21 in Montana and 18 in Oregon, according to the interagency fire center.
So far this year, wildfires have burned more than 12,500 square miles nationwide. In the past decade, only two years were worse at this point in the wildfire season: 2015 and 2012.
In 2015, a record 15,800 square miles burned. In 2012, 14,600 square miles were scorched.
More than 26,000 people are fighting the fires, backed by more than 200 helicopters, 1,800 trucks and 28 air tankers dropping water and fire-retardant slurry. Three of those tankers are military C-130 planes.
The military has also assigned surveillance aircraft and at least 200 active-duty soldiers to fight fires, and the National Guard has been called out in at least four states – California Montana, Oregon and Washington state.
“We’re stretched thin,” Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for the interagency fire center, said.
While a majority of the state’s fires are on federal land, Montana is strapped for cash to help fight this year’s fires on its own lands, or to provide firefighting resources to the feds.
The state found itself in a budget crunch last winter, when lower tax revenues came in. With record snowfall last winter and anticipating an easy fire season, Montana lawmakers tapped the state’s firefighting budget – a move they likely regret, as the state has burned through over $50 million in firefighting costs.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock this week met with Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long to ask for help.
“It has been a long and challenging fire season in Montana,” Bullock told Long. “We’ve had losses to homes, livestock, forage and infrastructure, and we’ve tragically lost the lives of two wildland firefighters. We are experiencing impacts to individuals and businesses across the state, who have endured losses due to evacuations, hazardous air quality, and sustained threats to our tourism and recreation industries.”
The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better, Bullock said, but FEMA has already issued grants to Montana for the Lodgepole Complex and the Lolo Peak fire. The FEMA grant program provides a 75 percent cost share for firefighting costs.
U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., spoke yesterday on the Senate floor to plead for better management of Montana’s forests.
Daines said mismanagement of federal forests that have been underlogged, and “radical environmentalists,” have contributed to the epic wildfire season in the West.
“We are tired of being told that others know better than we do, and watch our forests burn every summer, our mills close, our neighbors lose jobs, and counties lose road crews because they don’t have money to support basic infrastructure,” Daines said on the Senate floor. “A safe forest is a managed forest.
“Our crisis isn’t hurricanes , it’s fire.”
According to Daines, 28 of the top 30 forest fires in the nation are in Montana.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., also spoke from the Senate floor to bring attention to Montana’s devastating fire season. He said one rancher he knew took the shoes off his horse to avoid starting a fire from any sparks the shoes might cause when hitting a rock in dry grass.
Tester said federal firefighting has cost over $220 million in Montana so far this year, and the season isn’t over. “The bill is going to be huge this year,” Tester said.
Federal spending to fight fires appears to be headed for a record.
The two main firefighting agencies, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Interior, report spending of more than $2.1 billion so far. That’s about the same as they spent in all of 2015, the most expensive wildfire season on record.
Those figures do not include individual state spending, which no single agency compiles. Montana has spent $50 million, exhausting its firefighting reserve fund in just over a month. Oregon has spent $28 million, but expects to be reimbursed for part of that by the federal government and others.
The outlook is bleak for Montana, much of the Northwest and California through September, according to the interagency fire center. The fire risk is expected to remain very high in Montana and the Southern California coast through October.
Montana is gripped by a long, severe drought. Nearly a quarter of the state, near the northeast corner, is rated as in a state of exceptional drought, the worst of five categories on the federal government’s U.S. Drought Monitor.
Nine firefighters have died and 35 have been injured this year, according to the national Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. Two of the deaths came during training.
Fires have destroyed an estimated 500 single-family homes and 32 commercial buildings this year, the interagency fire center said.
Smoke lingers from Northern California and central Nevada to Montana. The air over parts of Northern California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington is rated very unhealthy on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow website.
Fires spew particulates into the air, which are linked to premature death and cancer and can make asthma and chronic lung disease worse said Dr. Norman H. Edelman, a senior science adviser to the American Lung Association.
“It certainly is bad enough to cause symptoms in people with chronic lung disease but also normal people,” he said.
In Glacier National Park Friday, the Swan family was already packing its belongings at The Village Inn when management announced the hotel was closing immediately, following other hotels in the western part of the park.
“We have three hours to get everyone out of here,” Village Inn manager Jeff Daniel said.
Glacier National Park had been on track for another record year for attendance, setting monthly records in June and July September will be a bust.
“Two weeks ago there were people everywhere,” Daniel said.
Now, the tourist traps near West Glacier were ghost towns. Signs that would normally say “No Vacancy” were welcoming any takers.
THE WEST ON FIRE
ACRES BURNED BY STATE
(Source: Inciweb.org. Data as of 1 p.m. MST Sept. 7, 2017)
Associated Press writers Matt Volz in Helena, Montana, and Andrew Selsky in Salem, Oregon, contributed to this report.