Lodgepole Complex

Smoke rises from the Lodgepole Complex, a group of fires burning in Garfield County, Montana, in the summer of 2017. The slow start to Montana's fire season this summer has been a relief with the state still recovering from the record amount spent fighting fires last year.

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The fires that charred large swaths of Montana over the summer discouraged hundreds of thousands of tourists from visiting the state, resulting in a $240 million loss in visitor spending, according to a new report.

Preliminary data released by the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research estimates that tourists in Montana spent nearly $3.3 billion in the state this year, supporting more than 53,000 jobs. But both numbers would have been higher if not for the fires and smoke that blanketed much of the state through the summer — by far the height of the tourist season — according to a second report released Tuesday by the organization.

Fires burned more than 1.2 million acres of Montana land in 2017, according to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center. Firefighting efforts cost the state in the neighborhood of $400 million.

For every 100 visitors to the state over the summer, roughly nine canceled their trip due to smoke or fire, according to the tourism institute’s report. The most changed trips occurred in Flathead and Missoula counties. Additionally, about 7 percent of visitors shortened their stays due to fire.

Factoring those who canceled or shortened their vacations, Montana lost roughly 800,000 visitors from July through September — equating to more than $240 million in spending.

The data was based on 600 voluntary survey responses from nonresident visitors, nearly three-quarters of whom said they came to Montana for vacation or recreation.

Jeremy Sage, a lead author on the study and the associate director for the tourism institute, said the state was on track for potentially record-breaking visitation numbers prior to fires like the 160,000-acre Rice Ridge blaze in Seeley Lake or the Sprague Fire that burned through Glacier National Park.

But by and large, Sage said, “It could have been a lot worse.”

“We have some pretty resilient visitors coming in. They toughed through the smoke and found other places to visit,” he said. “There’s an expectation that smoke does happen in the West, so people are resilient.”

According to the report, Gallatin County saw a slight benefit from the weather. The county received 18 percent of the travelers who reported they changed where they visited within the state due to fires.

Also as part of the study, the tourism institute observed that more than a third of residents surveyed reported fire or smoke affected their travels, with 25 percent canceling their trips entirely as a result.

According to the Montana Climate Assessment released earlier this year, Montana’s fires are expected to increase in size, frequency and severity over the next century due to increasing temperatures and large fuel loads from past fire suppression efforts.

“Therefore, developing a sound understanding of the ramifications such changes create within the peak of Montana’s tourism season is a vital component of proactively adapting to and mitigating the consequences of living in an era of increased fire activity,” the report reads.

“The concern moving forward is if this kind of fire season becomes more of the norm, we need to really understand how the tourism industry can adapt to these future changes and how our businesses can deal with these changes,” Sage added.

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Kendall can be reached at 406-582-2651 or lkendall@dailychronicle.com. He is on Twitter at @lewdak

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