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Ignited by lightning storms and stoked by the winds of an especially hot, dry summer, wildfires swept through Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, South Dakota and northern Nevada this summer, destroying well over 3.5 million acres of forest.
Although wildfires are a common occurrence during northwestern summers, this season was the worst in decades, ultimately forcing Montana governor Marc Racicot to close several hundred thousand acres to public use. With local c-stores often dependent on summer tourism dollars, no business was left unaffected.
"The fires three years ago killed our tourist business for that summer, but we did get a lot of business from the fire crews," said Terry Eiguren, owner of Howdy's, a one-store operation based in Cascade, Idaho. "This year, the fires weren't as close to our district, but we lost tourist business and had only spotty business from firefighters passing through. The overall impact was much more devastating."
Eiguren, whose business has weathered three wildfires, said, "You just have to be healthy enough to survive when you have a bad year. National news stories often give the impression that these fires are great for the forests and they really clean out undergrowth. That may be true, but locally, we often feel the impact of these fires for five to 10 years."
He added, "Tourists come here to hike, hunt and fish, and the fires destroy local habitats and have a long lasting impact on the population of salmon in our rivers. It can be a real mess."
In sharp contrast was the experience of Kathy Courtney, who owns Old Town Market Inc., based in McCall, Idaho. The stores were able to stay open for business by providing foodservice, snacks, beverages and services to rescue personnel.
"My sales have been up this summer due to the fire crews," Courtney said. "We had about 1,600 firefighters using the store's Laundromat in August and September, and that was a huge supplement to our income."
Still, Courtney has no misconceptions about the long-term effects of the ferocious wildfires. "I am aware that there may be a continuing impact on tourism for the next few years," she said.
Though the fires destroyed mostly very rural or state-owned land, many Montana residents residing on the fringes of these areas felt their full destructive force. In order to help local citizens displaced by the fires, Houston-based Exxon Mobil Corp. teamed up with Butte, Mont.-based Town Pump Food Stores Inc. to collect donations for the American Red Cross.
Maureen Kenneally, program manager for the 69-store chain, explained that while Town Pump always tries to help in its communities, "This is the greatest single challenge we have faced. Residents and employees in the affected areas were losing their homes while thousands of firefighters were putting their lives on the line to protect people and property. [We worked with the Red Cross because] they have proven over and over again that they are able to do the most good in these difficult circumstances."
Town Pump ultimately donated more than $10,000 in food, water and merchandise to firefighters and displaced residents; distributed 12,000 bottles of water with the help of Temple, Texas-based McLane Company Inc.; and matched more than $20,000 in donations made locally to the Red Cross.
"It is extremely rewarding to be a participant in realizing and meeting the needs of our community," Kenneally said.