MISSOULA – Montana lost up to 800,000 visitors due to the fires and smoke this past summer, according to a report produced by the Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research at the University of Montana.
“The reduction in visitation resulted in a loss of $240.5 million in visitor spending, translating to a 6.8 percent loss in expected annual spending,” said ITRR Economist Jeremy Sage.
Nonresidents who visited Montana in July, August and September also indicated impacts from the smoke. While nearly one-third of those who visited said the smoke wasn’t bad enough to negatively affect them, 10 percent couldn’t do their activities in their preferred location and 7 percent changed where they visited in the state. Flathead and Missoula counties were most impacted by the visitors’ change in locations.
The fires and smoke during the season also impacted residents all over Montana – affecting their livelihoods and quality of life. Seventy-six percent of Montana residents said their community experienced decreased air quality during the 2017 fire season, with the majority of residents living in western (87 percent) and in southwest Montana (90 percent) indicating poor air quality.
Sixty-nine percent of adults in Montana said the smoke affected their outdoor activities. This included 90 percent of those respondents saying activities such as hiking and fishing were occasionally or frequently affected and 75 percent who indicated their outdoor fitness activities were impacted due to smoke.
As many as 38 percent of Montanans indicated smoke impacted their travel within the state with 25 percent canceling their travels altogether and 16 percent changing where they traveled in the state.
“These changes in residents’ activities and travel point to an impact to our quality of life,” said ITRR Director Norma Nickerson. “A few years ago, we found that 95 percent of Montanans said that outdoor recreation was important to them and their family’s quality of life. The 2017 fire season greatly challenged that quality of life.”
The study also shows a need for a wide-ranging, action-driven conversation on how Montanans can adapt to fire seasons and build resilient communities and businesses. The expense of fighting fires, the loss of business and resident disillusionment toward their livelihoods during fire season is likely to become more common in the years to come.
As reported in a recent High Country News (Vol. 49 Issue 21) article about public health concerns over wildfire, Montana State University’s earth sciences Professor Cathy Whitlock suggests that the “flash drought” conditions that contributed to the 2017 fire season are “exactly the kind of situation that’s projected for the future.”