Last summer’s wildfires made for big headlines in the media, but the resulting destruction and smoke combined to keep out-of-state visitors away, and with them, millions of dollars in lost income.

Director of the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, Norma Nickerson said the fires had a significant negative impact on tourism.

“In terms of our nonresident visitation, those fires potentially made us lose up to 800,000 out of state visitors to Montana with an equivalent of about $240 million dollars their spending around out state,” said Nickerson, who was also surprised to discover how most of those who chose not to visit found out about the wildfires. “It was a wide range of outlets, but the majority of them were saying that they looked at air quality reports. So, they obviously knew about the fires, and so they wanted to check and see how it affected the air quality. There was also a little bit of talking with friends and relatives that they had in the state, and that was a significant part of their decision.”

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.

Nickerson said the information in her report is being passed on to other state officials who are closely involved with forest management.

“This was a long fire season, and that was probably the scariest part of it,” she said. “The climate scientists are saying that this is going to be our future, the ‘new normal’, so what can we do? That’s the discussion that needs to take place.”