Don’t Panic Yet

By Beacon Staff

Bob Harrington, state forester for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, spent much of last week briefing Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., along with several other state and federal agencies, on what to expect for Montana’s 2007 fire season.

Next week the DNRC will hold its Wildland Fire Engine academy to train firefighters for the upcoming season, and the agency is mounting its annual campaign teaching homeowners how to reduce their fire susceptibility.

Yes, it’s that time of year as fire season draws closer.

The bad news is, Montana is “looking at probably an above-average fire season,” Harrington said.

The relative good news, at least for the Flathead Valley, is that conditions here are wetter than in much of the rest of the state. Montana’s south-central region, including Billings and Miles City are dry right now, Harrington said, but the worst areas surround Yellowstone Park, including Beaverhead, Madison and Gallatin County.

Both Harrington and Area Operations Manager Stephen Frye of the DNRC Northwest branch in Kalispell caution, however, that it’s difficult to predict late summer conditions based on current moisture levels.

“We lost a lot of snowpack in March, but we’ve gotten some snow since then,” Frye said. “Neither winter snowfall nor early spring weather is a good predictor of early fire seasons.”

Fire season severity in Northwest Montana, Frye added, corresponds to the amount of lightning, the most common trigger here.

But, as with so many other things, the Flathead’s rampant growth is changing the roles and risks firefighters face, particularly when it concerns homes built in remote, heavily-wooded areas often bordering public land, known as the Wildland-Urban Interface, or “WUI.”

“There are more homes being built in the Interface, which present a whole other set of problems for wildland firefighters,” Frye said. In the ever-expanding WUI, firefighters must now contend with the protection of large, expensive homes while attempting to suppress a blaze.

Responding to this situation, the state Legislature passed a bill this year requiring the DNRC to provide a lawyer to any firefighter prosecuted for, say, property damage that might occur while doing their job.

“With development in the Interface, you’ve introduced a human-caused fire source that previously didn’t exist,” Frye added. “There are very few wildland fires today that don’t include residences.”

Adding structure protection to wildland firefighting has driven up the costs severely. As a result, Harrington and Frye said, the federal government is trying to cut back on the amount of money spent fighting “mega-fires” on remote, public land far from populated areas. The newer, cheaper approach to such fires will be to contain it and allow it to burn itself out, rather than expend millions in a futile attempt to extinguish it completely.

An example would be last year’s “Tripod Complex” fire in Washington’s Cascade mountain range, which burned 175,000 acres and cost $82 million to fight.

“A fire similar to the Tripod fire will be looked at much more closely in terms of management response,” Frye said. “A larger, potentially extended-duration fire may not receive all the resources that it would have received in previous years.”

More good news for the Flathead Valley is that while the region’s fire danger might be slightly lower than the rest of the state, the wildland firefighting expertise in the DNRC’s Kalispell office is among the highest in the state.

Frye, along with Area Manager Bob Sandman and Fire and Aviation Management Specialist Wally Bennett have attained the rank of Type One Incident Commander, of which there are only 16 in the United States.

Frye, 58, has commanded teams as large as 3,400 against some of the largest fires in recent history. The rank takes decades to attain, but Frye has been at it since 1966, when he fought his first fire at age 16.

“I was hooked almost immediately,” he said. “Your objectives are very clear and success is clearly defined.”

As for whether Frye and his colleagues will have to put their skills to work anywhere close come August, at this point, it’s too early to tell.

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