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What It's Like To Fight Montana's Wildfires

What It's Like To Fight Montana's Wildfires

Long days, poor air quality, and an endless amount of "moon dust."

Posted on September 9, 2017, at 7:00 p.m. ET

A firefighter walks through a burned area of the Gibralter Ridge fire looking for embers still burning.
Robert LeBlanc

A firefighter walks through a burned area of the Gibralter Ridge fire looking for embers still burning.

Photographer Robert LeBlanc shadowed firefighters battling the Caribou and Gibralter Ridge fires in the Kootenai National Forest in Montana, where just over 43 fires are burning statewide. Combined, the Caribou and Gibralter Ridge fires have burned over 26,000 acres in the northwest corner of Montana, right outside the rural town of Eureka, including 10 residential homes and another 30 local structures. Over 770 firefighters from all over the US have joined the battle against the blazes, which are currently just under 30% contained and began after two separate lightning storms. If Montana continues to have such extremely dry and hot weather conditions, the fires could continue for several months until the winter snow arrives to aid firefighting efforts.

A group of firefighters from Oregon. Each firefighter will work on a fire for two weeks, usually for 12 to 16 hours a day.
Robert LeBlanc

A group of firefighters from Oregon. Each firefighter will work on a fire for two weeks, usually for 12 to 16 hours a day.

Driving down the fire line of the Gibralter Ridge fire. Firefighters work to keep the fire from crossing the line.
Robert LeBlanc

Driving down the fire line of the Gibralter Ridge fire. Firefighters work to keep the fire from crossing the line.

Left: The Gibralter Ridge fire suddenly explodes while hitting a thick, dry patch of forest. Right: A firefighter watches the fire line while back-burning a large area around the wildfire to eliminate "fuel" for the fire to grow.
Robert LeBlanc

Left: The Gibralter Ridge fire suddenly explodes while hitting a thick, dry patch of forest. Right: A firefighter watches the fire line while back-burning a large area around the wildfire to eliminate "fuel" for the fire to grow.

A firefighter watches the back burn line to make sure the fire remains under control.
Robert LeBlanc

A firefighter watches the back burn line to make sure the fire remains under control.


Montana currently has the worst air quality conditions in the US, and firefighters breathe this smoky air every day.
Robert LeBlanc

Montana currently has the worst air quality conditions in the US, and firefighters breathe this smoky air every day.

Firefighters carry up to 50 pounds on their backs in these physically demanding environments.
Robert LeBlanc

Firefighters carry up to 50 pounds on their backs in these physically demanding environments.

The ground is covered in several inches of ash, which is sometimes referred to as "moon dust."
Robert LeBlanc

The ground is covered in several inches of ash, which is sometimes referred to as "moon dust."

Robert LeBlanc

The Caribou fire took a sudden change and pushed into a section of the rural Amish community in the West Kootenai. Animals are often suffocated by the thick smoke.

Left: A firefighter watches the fire line. Right: A fire continues to rage in the distance.
Robert LeBlanc

Left: A firefighter watches the fire line. Right: A fire continues to rage in the distance.

Residents near the Caribou fire had to be evacuated immediately, and some barely escaped before the fire engulfed rural homes.
Robert LeBlanc

Residents near the Caribou fire had to be evacuated immediately, and some barely escaped before the fire engulfed rural homes.

Trailers, houses, and cars were completely destroyed along with belongings that people couldn't take when they evacuated.
Robert LeBlanc

Trailers, houses, and cars were completely destroyed along with belongings that people couldn't take when they evacuated.

Burned remnants are all that remain after the destructive power of the Caribou fire.
Robert LeBlanc

Burned remnants are all that remain after the destructive power of the Caribou fire.

The sun sets on the Gibralter Ridge fire.
Robert LeBlanc

The sun sets on the Gibralter Ridge fire.

A Border Patrol agent watches a Super Scooper plane pick up water from the river to drop on the fires.
Robert LeBlanc

A Border Patrol agent watches a Super Scooper plane pick up water from the river to drop on the fires.


For more of Robert LeBlanc's work, check him out on Instagram @photosbyrobertleblanc.

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