Fire crews to keep close to teams for fire season

Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, June 24, 2020

An active fire season and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic will put new strains on firefighting this year, though state officials expressed readiness for both challenges last week.

Representatives from Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), Disaster and Emergency Services (DES), National Guard, Fish Wildlife Services, the State Fire Chiefs Association; the Northern Rockies Coordination Center; the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service; and the bureaus of Land Management and Indian Affairs discussed the issues in a conference call about the upcoming fire season June 16. All representatives noted a readiness to deploy wherever the fires were, catch them small and contain them quickly.

Fire responders got their first taste of the upcoming season June 13, when a fast-moving storm with fierce winds knocked down power lines and started the Lump Gulch Fire in northern Jefferson County. Dried out dead timber from little rainfall made it easy for the fire to spread quickly, fanned by the winds. As of Friday, the fire was 65 percent contained, covering 1,073 acres, according to Inci-Web, the Incident Information System.

National Weather Service Meteorologist Michael Richmond said weather experts predict this year’s fire season will be one of the bigger ones, due to early snowmelt and little rain since October.

The worst most recent fire season was in 2017, which burned approximately 1.366 million acres of land across the state. A typical season burns around 119,000 acres, he said.

Most of Montana fires are human-caused, Montana DNRC Chief of Fire and Aviation Management Mike DeGrosky said.

The state as a whole has been dry for most areas, Richmond said, but especially in the southwest and the east. The state has had little fire activity until now because it has been cooler than normal, keeping snowmelt low.

The climate outlooks for the next few months indicate dry conditions, which also points to a busy fire season. The biggest areas of concern are in already-dry southwest and east Montana. Richmond added he expected a lot more smoke from fires this year, especially from fires in northern Nevada, California and Idaho.

“The past two summers have not had a whole of smoke loading coming into Montana. Even if we have a typical summer like 2014 or 2016, we will have more smoke coming in,” he said.

The rain over the past weekend is unlikely to make up the water shortfall.

Fire officials have been training fire teams to work as a unit, to protect them from getting the virus from others outside fire camps. Those units eat, sleep and train together in preparations.

Training stresses individuals’ actions outside the fire camps impact everyone inside them, DeGrosky said.

Most fire facilities have temperature checks before anyone can enter, along with other protocols to ensure the health and safety of the people that work there. DeGrosky said he expected that vigilance to continue.

At active fire sites, all crews will work closely with county public health to ensure their safety from both the virus and the fire. If an outbreak occurs in a team or fire camp, the goal is to trace where the initial infection occurred and isolate individuals or whole camps as needed.

DeGrosky said firefighters have plans already in place for dealing with outbreaks of infectious diseases. He added there was an outbreak of whooping cough in the 2017 fire season among firefighters, so that gives a more recent example of how to handle a disease outbreak.

“This year, we’ve burned more acres already than all of last year,” BLM Montana-Dakotas State Director John Mehlhoff said. “I think it will be a very active fire season, but I think we’re prepared even in these circumstances we have to deal with.”