Firefighters in the Flathead Valley and across Montana are preparing for the summer fire season, but some private contractors are concerned they won’t be able to find work due to wet conditions and the dispatching policies of government agencies.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the potential for wildfire in the Northern Rockies will be below normal in July and August, thanks to a deep snowpack in the mountains.
“If there is no fire, there’s no work,” said Steve Gist, owner of Gist Enterprises, LLC, a private contractor based in Whitefish.
Gist is also concerned that dispatching policies used by the Northern Rockies Coordinating Group, which coordinates firefighting efforts in the region at the federal, state and local levels, are preventing private contractors from getting called to jobs.
According to Tim Murphy, contractor liaison for the coordinating group, federal and state employed firefighters and equipment are the first dispatched to any wildfire in the region. After those resources are depleted, local fire departments are called and finally private contractors. Murphy said that this policy was established by the coordinating group’s board of directors in 2005.
But Gist, who is a director of the Northern Rockies Wildfire Contractors Association, said this dispatching order is unfair to private contractors and that local fire departments shouldn’t be responding to fires outside of their area.
“There are a lot of good cooperatives out there and I have a lot of respect for volunteer firefighters, but we don’t think those departments should be driving across the state,” he said.
Troy Kurth is also an association member and general manager for Rocky Mountain Fire Company in Missoula. He echoed concerns about the current dispatching order and asked what would happen when a local fire department couldn’t respond to a fire in their area because resources had been sent elsewhere.
“The local fire department equipment is there to protect local people and property and is paid for by local taxpayers,” Kurth said. “We ask that they call contractors before stretching the resources of local government.”
Murphy responded that the final decision for a local department to go out of their area is made by the fire chief and that, in most cases, they would only allow some equipment and personnel to leave the area when wildfire conditions were low.
Mike Kopitzke, acting manager for the government coordinating group, said the organization views federal, state and local agencies as the same and government resources are used before private resources.
“Our policy says we should send government resources before private contractors,” he said. “When we’ve exhausted government resources, we send in the contractors.”
But Gist and the contractors association are concerned that this policy could be harmful to the contractors and when there is a bad fire season there will be fewer resources.
“When we look at the big picture, some of the contractors out there are going out of business or quitting and when we have a big season, we’re going to be in big trouble,” he said. “We’re not going to have the manpower or resources.”
In 2010 Gist’s company, which consists of four trucks and 12 employees, only got 10 days of work. In 2007 they worked almost 200. Gist attributed this to both weak fire seasons in recent years and the dispatching policies.
Last month the contractors association met with the coordinating group and the government agencies it represents, including the U.S. Forest Service and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and voiced its concerns. Gist, Kurth and other contractors all hoped the policy would be changed and that private contractors would be sent to fires before local fire departments from other areas.
Murphy said the coordinating group’s board of directors would be meeting this week to discuss the concerns.
Kurth was hopeful the issue would be resolved before this year’s fire season and that everyone would be satisfied with the outcome.
“I think that the system in Montana and the Northern Rockies is the best and we have a great relationship with all of the agencies,” he said. “I think it’ll be resolved in the professional manner.”
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