By Sydney Mook

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.

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."

(c)2017 the Dickinson Press (Dickinson, N.D.)