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Extreme drought fans wildfires in Big Sky, American West

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Smoke from the Shedhorn Fire in the Taylor Fork drainage was visible for up to 20 miles. The blaze, one of two in the Big Sky area over a lengthy 2021 fire season, burned 75 acres. PHOTO BY JOSEPH T. O’CONNOR

Summer, Fall 2021


BIG SKY – Montana’s wildfire season started early in 2021, burned late and colored the Treasure State’s skies with smoke from June through October. Scorching nearly 940,000 acres across the state, fires this year burned the most acreage since 2017.

As much of the West—and most of Montana—experienced extreme to exceptional drought conditions this past year, Big Sky was no exception.

The South Fork Loop Fire, which started on June 17 at the trailhead just west of Hummocks and Uplands trails in Big Sky, was contained following a rapid response by the Big Sky Fire Department and partnering agencies.

“We have to be diligent to minimize unnecessary ignitions this year because this is just a sneak peek into how volatile of a fire season this could be for us,” BSFD stated in a June 18 press release.

At the time—considered early for Montana’s wildfire season to begin—three active fires were burning near Townsend, in Red Lodge and in the Pryor Mountains.

“Be super careful out there,” said Big Sky Fire Department Deputy Chief Seth Barker. “We’re in a very dangerous season.”

Until early fall, the Big Sky area escaped additional wildland fires. Then, on Sept. 27, a blaze ignited in the Taylor Fork drainage south of Big Sky sending a plume of gray smoke into the air and eventually burning 75 acres.

A newly installed artificial intelligence camera detected the Shedhorn Fire 13 miles from its perch atop Lone Mountain. The cause remains unknown, according to the Forest Service.

“We use artificial intelligence to detect smoke as quickly as we can see it,” said Arvind Satyam, Pano AI’s chief commercial officer at a press event this afternoon. “Over the course of Monday and the last two days, we were able to demonstrate this technology.”

Once the AI camera picks up smoke, it sends an alert back to a 24/7 Pano AI intelligence center, where experts analyze the data, determine if it’s a fire incident, and notify the fire department.

Aircraft were critical in containing the Shedhorn Fire, but for the first two days crews were on scene, officials were forced to call off flights providing water drops and mapping due to drones flying in the area. 

“When they fly, we can’t,” said Shedhorn Incident Commander Jay Fassett. “Everything goes away, in the middle of whatever they’re doing. The helicopters went back to Ennis, the air attack went back to Bozeman.” Drones pose a serious threat to air operations and can take aircraft out “like a bird strike,” he said.

With air operations on hold, 41 firefighters were left to work the fire from the ground before two 20-person hand crews arrived to support suppression efforts.

“The first day it started, the fire would have been out if it wasn’t for that drone,” Barker said at a Sept. 29 press event.

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