MARION — The day began like any other during the summer: a communal gathering. It was the first of the new wildfire season.
Last week nearly 60 people, mostly young men, filed into the tightly packed mess hall off the forested shores of Little Bitterroot Lake. They all wore thick leather boots, dark green Nomex pants and shirts bearing the titles of different agencies – U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
The occasion – hosted by the state’s Boorman Wildfire Initial Attack Station in the dense mountains west of Kalispell – is an annual rite of passage for firefighters, young and old, who reassemble on the eve of summer to sharpen their skills or gain new ones. Across the state, similar gatherings were taking place as training academies prepared Montana’s fleet of men and women for another season on the fire lines.
Looking out over the crowded room near Marion, Ted Mead, bureau chief of the DNRC’s Forestry Division and a veteran firefighter, explained the values and principles that everyone there needed to keep in mind over the next few months. The top priority, he said, was safety. He reminded the room of last summer’s tragedy, the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, where 19 firefighters including Montana native Dustin Deford died in the line of duty.
“We understand that responding to wildfires is inherently risky. We accept that risk. However we do everything we can to mitigate it and make sure it’s not going to cause injury or harm to firefighters or the public,” Mead said.
“Everything we do, we do to make sure everyone comes home.”
Initial attack firefighters like those training at the Boorman academy make up the largest segment of Montana’s wildland fire suppression effort. They are the first line of defense to respond when smoke is reported in the rugged outdoors, and are arguably the most important tool in the fight to protect lives, property and natural resources.
At a time when longer, more intense fire seasons are persistently threatening the American West, the role of initial attack crews has become increasingly vital.
While policies in wilderness areas and remote forests often dictate crews to allow fires to burn naturally, the millions of acres of landscape where homes and communities exist depend on the fast, effective response of initial attack firefighters.
Wildfires charred more than 22 million acres from 2011-2013, primarily across the West. The season is considered 60 to 80 days longer than historical averages and burns twice as many acres as compared to three decades ago, according to the Department of Interior.
Another incentive in the effort to quickly douse flames is costs, which are 23 percent higher than a decade ago and takes up an increasing share of the U.S. Forest Service budget.
Fighting wildfires this year will cost an estimated $1.8 billion, $470 million more than Congress budgeted. A new effort is underway by the Obama administration to classify extreme wildfires as natural disasters, enabling the use of federal emergency funds for suppression without diverting money from wildfire prevention programs. The legislation is pending in Congress.
Fire season is already off to a roaring start in some parts of the nation. States across the southwest have experienced extreme fire activity, and that trend is expected to spread to northern California, Nevada and Oregon this month, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Montana is forecast to have below normal fire potential through July, but the danger is expected to rise in August and continue through September, underscoring a delayed and compressed fire season, the NIFC’s latest outlook says.
The state experienced a relatively quiet season overall a year ago, with fires blackening 192 square miles in Montana compared to 1,875 in 2012, which was the worst wildfire season in more than 100 years. Fueled by severe drought conditions and the warmest average temperatures on record, more than 14,000 square miles burned across the nation in 2012, including 2,196 residences. Only 2006, when 14,690 square miles burned, was worse.
As always, weather patterns will largely determine the heft of fire season. In the Flathead, an area that has not seen a significant fire season since 2007, the spring saw slightly below average moisture through May but is midway through June with slightly above average precipitation, according to National Weather Service data. Kalispell received 1.2 inches of rain in May while June has already seen 1.58 inches.
Decades before Smokey Bear and the Forest Service devoted concerted attention toward wildland suppression, one of the nation’s first forest fire protection districts was established near Kalispell in 1911, a year after the “Big Burn.” Named the Northern Montana Forestry Association, it formed to protect the growing community and abundant timber resources from summer blazes like the one in 1910 that ravaged 3 million acres and killed 86 people. By 1918, there were 21 patrolmen scouring the woods of western Montana, acting as the region’s original initial attack resources. Another district was formed in 1921, near Missoula. A year later, the first district directly protected by state resources was created near Bigfork and tasked with protecting roughly 50,000 acres of public and private lands.
By 1935, the U.S. Forest Service had created a fire management policy centered on initial attack. The rule was simple for the crews of young men tasked with combating the flames: all wildfires must be suppressed by 10 a.m. the morning after smoke was first spotted.
In 1944, the role of firefighters became more recognizable with a new nationwide campaign featuring a black bear named Smokey who urged vigilance and safety in the outdoors.
Today, the men and women who patrol the woods ready to fight are paramount to the nation’s defense. The Department of Interior last month announced a new National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. One of the key goals in the strategy is to maintain an aggressive initial attack force.
The DNRC’s overall initial attack program, including the crews based at the Boorman Station and in Kalispell, have successfully kept 96 percent of fires at 10 acres or less in the last decade, a point of pride within the agency. The Kalispell unit fights an average of 90 fires of varying degrees each summer. Local crews have already responded to more than 30 fires, mostly from private debris piles that escaped.
Montana has multiple agencies with fire suppression forces, ranging from federal to community volunteers, that work together throughout summer.
Pat McChesney, 26, is a new engine boss working for the DNRC’s Kalispell Unit. Before taking over his own engine, he trained at the Boorman academy for three days. The event concluded with McChesney, Shelby Crandall and Michael Moseley responding to a practice incident that mirrored a real-life fire.
“It’s really challenging. There’s a lot more responsibility being an engine boss,” McChesney said. “You’re always thinking. Every day you have to be on top of your game.”
After receiving coordinates and arriving at the fire, McChesney calmly assessed the fire, which crackled and burned high into the air. Instead of quickly attacking the blaze, he and his firefighters sized up the situation, looking for potential hazards, pinpointing every detail and determining a plan of action.
“Hazards must be mitigated before you put your guys near them,” he said. “You have to make sure everyone is on the same page.”
All of DNRC’s crews operate under the same mentality and strategy, similar to the one McChesney put into action last week. After last year’s Yarnell tragedy, agencies questioned whether they need to change any tactics, and a statewide committee reviewed Montana’s suppression programs in the offseason.
“After what happened at Yarnell, I think everybody in this business kind of had a gut check and said, ‘Are we OK? Are we doing everything we can do prevent something like that?’” Mead said.
The state’s supervisors were surveyed and operations were reviewed extensively, Mead said, but there were not any glaring gaps discovered.
“It wasn’t so much that we need to do anything differently, it’s to emphasize our current practices and procedures,” he said. “It should be clear to all of our firefighters what their guidance is. If they follow that guidance we feel comfortable that we’ll be in a good place.”
The agency is maintaining a strong focus on training, physical fitness standards, chain saw operations and driving tactics, Mead said.
However, Mead acknowledged the old saying among veteran wildland firefighters — Mother Nature bats last.
“There are times when it doesn’t matter what all of us do, we’re not going to be successful,” he said.
For McChesney, he accepts the challenge and risks before him. He said the training he has received gives him confidence, along with the skilled team members around him.
The goal is simple but far from easy.
“You use your tactics that you learned,” he said, “and you keep the fire as small as it can be.”
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