News & Features

Officials Prepare for Wildfire at Libby Asbestos Mine

State, federal and local officials hold large-scale tabletop exercise to address Operable Unit 3 concerns

LIBBY – With cool temperatures and the occasional rain shower falling from the sky on Aug. 3, the likelihood of an out-of-control wildfire spreading across Zonolite Mountain north of here seemed unlikely.

But it was on everyone’s mind in a large conference room at the Kootenai National Forest Supervisor’s Office as local, state and federal officials gathered for a large-scale tabletop exercise simulating a fire near the now shuttered asbestos mine.

For years, local officials have worried about a wildfire in “Operable Unit 3,” a 47,000-acre area at the center of one of the largest Superfund cleanups in American history. Years of vermiculite mining atop Zonolite Mountain encased much of the landscape with poisonous asbestos that can cause cancer in humans through long-term exposure. In the last few years, the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Forest Service have been conducting tests to determine the health impacts of inhaling asbestos-laden ash and smoke from a wildfire.

The USFS already maintains a group of specially trained firefighters who wear respirators whenever they fight fire in OU-3. On average, they respond to four fires near the old mine annually; last year, they doused two fires. None have been reported yet this year.

Earlier this year, the EPA and USFS announced that they would be allocating $2.1 million to support firefighting efforts in OU-3. Part of that money will be used to ensure that there is always a firefighting helicopter nearby should a blaze break out.

In the past, officials have gathered for small-scale planning sessions. At the Aug. 3-4 large-scale tabletop exercise, EPA, USFS, Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Lincoln County officials discussed how they would respond to a hypothetical out-of-control blaze dubbed “The Highway 37 Fire,” which went from a few acres to more than 4,000-acres in just a few days.

“This is preparation for an event that we know will happen,” said Kootenai National Forest District Ranger Nate Gassman. “Just look at what we’re seeing in Hamilton right now.”

Gassman said that every large wildfire is hectic, but one on OU-3 is even more complex because of all of the agencies and dangers involved. Chief among them is concern about asbestos-laden smoke blowing into town. EPA Project Manager Christina Progress said if a large fire starts in OU-3, air-monitoring stations would be set up around the area. The EPA would help analyze the information from those monitors and then give the information to the local health department, which then would make the call about possible evacuations.

“This tabletop exercise was a great opportunity to see how we can all work together if there was a fire on OU-3,” said Nick Raines from the Lincoln County Health Department.

Upon completion of the two-day exercise, officials reviewed what worked and what didn’t. Gassman said he was optimistic that the lessons learned during the tabletop exercise would be heeded when faced with a real fire.